The Magazine

How Palin Got Picked

The maverick candidate decided he wanted a maverick veep.

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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At 5:20 A.M. Friday, August 29th, Bill McAllister awoke to the ringing of his home phone. McAllister had turned his BlackBerry off before heading to bed. He usually leaves it on, but "It was a slow news day here," he says with a laugh.

McAllister, a former television news reporter in Anchorage, had become Alaska governor Sarah Palin's press secretary just two months earlier, in June, after covering her administration. At one point, he'd even done a story on her vice presidential prospects. "She really didn't think it was in the realm of likely," says McAllister.

On Thursday, McAllister was having lunch with his wife and revisited that subject. "I said if McCain were down 10 points, he would have to throw the Hail Mary," McAllister recalls. "He threw it anyway."

McCain's selection of Palin ended a long and gut-wrenching selection process driven by the senator's desire to do something unconventional. For weeks, McCain advisers said that the pick would be "transformative"--and for much of that time, after McCain told THE WEEKLY STANDARD that he was open to picking a pro-choice running mate--speculation focused on former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge and independent Democratic senator Joe Lieberman.

Although McCain mentioned Ridge by name in his TWS interview, his focus remained on Lieberman, who received a second round of vetting. Lieberman was encouraged when McCain seemed to back off his previous statements that picking a pro-choice running mate would be difficult. The two men have been close friends for years, and McCain saw him as not only a transformative pick but also a comfortable one. Senator Lindsey Graham, who is close to both McCain and Lieberman, pressed the choice on the Republican nominee and quietly made phone calls to key conservatives to gauge whether they would support a McCain-Lieberman ticket. They received word back from such prominent social conservatives as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, Utah governor Jon Huntsman, conservative activist Gary Bauer, among others--some of whom enthusiastically agreed to support the pick and others who said they would not oppose it. Several pro-life senators also signaled their willingness to support a Lieberman pick. New York representative Peter King won support for a McCain-Lieberman ticket from several of his House colleagues.

Rudy Giuliani, too, supposedly placed a call to McCain urging him to pick Lieberman. In a telephone interview Thursday, Giuliani acknowledged talking to McCain about the selection but would not confirm--or deny--that he pushed Lieberman.

It wasn't enough for McCain, apparently. On Sunday the 24th, he met with his closest advisers to discuss the process. "One adviser, tasked with taking the temperature of the conservative base, had strongly made the case to McCain that it would be a disaster for the party and that the base would revolt," reported ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg. "McCain concluded he could not go that route."

Earlier in the day, McCain had spoken to Palin, who was visiting at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer. According to McAllister, that conversation had its roots in a comment McCain made in his TWS interview ten days earlier. McCain had called Palin "a remarkable woman" and said that he planned to consult her as he reexamined his position on oil exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Palin is for drilling; McCain--for now--is against it.

"He called her at the State Fair following up on a promise he made to THE WEEKLY STANDARD magazine," McAllister told a press conference Friday in Anchorage. The call was brief--maybe five minutes--and Palin had difficulty hearing in the noisy surroundings. A McCain campaign summary of the selection process provided no details of the conversation. "Last Sunday, Governor Palin and John McCain had a conversation over the phone," it reads. "Governor Palin was at the Alaska State Fair, and John McCain was at his home at Phoenix."

With Lieberman ruled out, McCain spent Monday and Tuesday looking at other candidates--chiefly Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney. Pawlenty was appealing--a smart, articulate governor of a potential battleground state that is hosting the Republican National Convention. And Pawlenty had several strong backers on McCain's staff, including longtime McCain aide Mark Salter, one of the senator's most trusted advisers.

Romney had been asked to submit vetting materials early in the process, but unlike Pawlenty did not have a strong top-level supporter among McCain's advisers. Romney was seen as something of a default candidate and never seemed to get the close examination that Lieberman and Pawlenty received.