BLOOMINGTON, Minn.—Bill Noll, an Alaskan delegate to the Republican convention, has been a coal entrepreneur, an appointed state officeholder and the mayor of a small town in his home state. “Smaller than Wasilla, actually,” he said with a grin. It had been four days exactly since John McCain had made Alaskan Sarah Palin the most famous former small-town mayor in America. (With the possible exception of Clint Eastwood.)
Since Palin was introduced to the world last Friday as a reformist, no-nonsense female chief executive, her image has been clouded by the revelation of family problems (a pregnant teenage daughter, a no-good state trooper brother-in-law, a husband with a history of drinking and driving), flip-flopping problems (on “the bridge to nowhere” and the subject of earmarks), embarrassing-bedfellow problems (she served on the board of a 527 called “Ted Stevens Excellence in Public Service, Inc.”), and a problematic perception, overall, that she is an inexperienced, moose-skinning former beauty queen who is swimming far out of her depth.
The Alaska delegation was milling around a hotel ballroom, having just finished breakfast and dealing with an unaccustomed and unexpected onslaught of press attention.
Mr. Noll, a native New Yorker who first went to Alaska with the military and never left, was wearing a button that read “Bill Noll Supports McCain-Palin.” He pointed to the other side of the Ramada ballroom, to a woman who wore her brown hair swept up on top of her head. “See that hairdo?” Noll said. “You’re going to see that hairdo sweeping America. That’s the Sarah Palin up-do. In Alaska, I saw it just sweeping the state.”
A week ago, Sarah Palin’s name was almost unknown outside her home state. Now, thanks to McCain’s surprise strike, she’s fast becoming a—dare we say it?—celebrity, gracing the covers of magazines like Us Weekly, though perhaps not for the reasons the campaign would have liked. No vice presidential candidate in recent memory has come from so far out of left field—if the United States is Wrigley, Alaska is across Waveland Avenue—and perhaps no other’s debut has been attended by such a chaotic barrage of embarrassing disclosures. In the absence of any coordinated response from the McCain campaign, it’s so far fallen to the Alaska delegates to explain Ms. Palin, and the place they’re from, to the rest of America. Though Ms. Palin made her name by challenging Alaska’s Republican establishment—former New York Governor George Pataki, in a speech to the delegates that morning, had praised her as “someone who has taken on not just the special interests but leaders of her state, political heavies of her state, members of her own party”—the delegation to the convention, which included some of those same party leaders, has defended her, with resolute cheeriness, from all manner of hostile inquiries.
“It’s a nice feeling, it’s a warm feeling, but with the pride goes a certain feeling of responsibility,” Mr. Noll said. “It’s kind of a callous, rough world out there.”
The prior afternoon, as the convention took care of its hurricane-shortened business, dozens of cameras and tape recorders were trained on the Alaska delegation’s section of the hall, which was all the way at the back of the floor. (Everything about the state, apparently, is remote: Unlike many state delegations that are staying at luxury hotels in downtown Minneapolis, Alaska is staying at a tatty Ramada next to the Mall of America in suburban Bloomington.) Dana Bash, the CNN correspondent, stood next to the delegation and spoke live to Wolf Blitzer. “They’re very excited about the fact that we’re even standing here in front of them,” she said.
That might have been overstating things slightly: As the press swarmed, delegates fielded questions politely, and a man wearing an earpiece and a red “McCain” hat broke up conversations that went on too long. When Ms. Palin’s name was mentioned, the delegation broke into a chant of: “Sarah! Sarah! Sarah!”
“There are a few people who have said she was just a mayor of a small town,” said Rex Shattuck, the delegation coordinator. “Well, what more perfect a start can you get for a public official than dealing with the real nitty-gritty?”