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How Democrats set Sarah Palin up to 'win' Thursday's VP debate

September 29, 2008 |  3:02 am

According to a news release from CBS News, Harry Smith will have an exclusive interview this morning with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, on "The Early Show."

It's not really exclusive, of course. CNN's Drew Griffin interviewed the proud father of the Republican Party's first female vice presidential candidate way back on Sept. 8 (see video by clickinSally and Chuck Heath parents of Alaska Governor and Senator John McCain's running mate Republican vice presidential nominee Alaska Governor Sarah Paling on the "Read More" line below), when her father said, "She's still my little girl."

But, hey, this is TV and the CBS interview is exclusive for this morning.

It'll be the last peek into the family of Palin before her much-anticipated debate Thursday in St. Louis against longtime Sen. Joe Biden. But have Palin's Democratic opponents overplayed their hand in portraying the 44-year-old mother of five so derisively in recent days?

Was John McCain manager Steve Schmidt's puzzingly strong attack on the New York Times last week really a trap, an intentional bid to call even more attention to negative coverage of Palin to lower expectations? 

Harry Smith flew all the way up to Alaska last week and drove out to Wasilla with his crew to learn that Chuck Heath, who looks like the high school track coach he was when his daughter ran to a cross-country championship for him, thinks:

"She is ready to do anything she wants to. She perseveres. She works so hard. She learns so fast."

Knowing full well what he's going to get back from the worried....

. . .parent of anyone in American public life these days, but desperately hoping to generate at least some news for all those trans-continental expense dollars, the prominent member of the media himself puts words into the father's mouth.

Harry: "There’s a sense that she hasn’t been treated fairly by the media.”

Chuck Heath: “That’s what I feel. Someone said, ‘Well they have to get to know Sarah Palin.’ But Sarah Palin -- there is a good side of Sarah Palin and they’re digging and digging for the bad side and there is no real bad side. They’re fabricating a lot of things that I don’t want to go into.”

That much news is certainly worth getting up early for. But here's a really silly idea for this gotcha society:

If a candidate's family is not being arrested or not out on the campaign trail inviting news coverage as McCain's 96-year-old mother, Roberta, does, why don't we just leave them alone?

The way the U.S. media has so conscientiously managed to deny itself virtually any inquisitions of Barack Obama's poor half-brother in Africa and his half-sister in Hawaii and Joe Biden's mother and Michelle's family.

Republican Arizona senator and presidential candidate John McCain and vice presidential nominee Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in Pennsylvania recently

It's not new that American political campaigns, beneath a thinning veneer of public gentility, can be intrusive, brutal, even disgusting affairs, especially online.

McCain knows this too well from personal experience in 2000 when his adopted daughter from Bangladesh was portrayed in South Carolina as the illegitimate child of a biracial affair.

All big-time candidates develop very thick skin; some staffs even collect the worst insults in scrapbooks as badges of honor and humor. It's the candidates' defenseless families who really suffer.

And by keeping the governor herself largely away from the media, the McCain campaign is, in effect, playing a prevent defense, ceding the public relations playing field to others to describe, define and caricature Palin, strangely unanswered by her for a week now.

One recent Alaska poll showed Palin's approval rating there had tumbled to 68%, which is still about 20 points higher than either presidential candidate and seven times greater than Congress' approval.

The upcoming downside for the Obama-Biden campaign is that its supporters became so flustered over Palin's surprisingly explosive popularity coming out of the GOP convention. They have so successfully mocked, derided and lowered expectations for Palin in Thursday night's VP debate that if she doesn't drool or speak in tongues, many millions still open to persuasion will be impressed.

Al Gore's campaign made the exact same mistake going into the 2000 debates. So all Texas Gov. George W. Bush had to do was not lose.

In that sense, Democrats may have played right into a PR cul-de-sac. Biden, for instance, described Palin as merely better-looking than him. A far better communications strategy would have been to insincerely portray Palin with superlatives as a superwoman, making it harder, not easier, for her to impress. Too late now. 

It'll be difficult for Palin's parents because they so want to keep up and cheer their daughter on. But if they are wise, for their own mental health, they'll pretty much avoid the news for the next six weeks or so. What the threatened Alaskan Republican establishment tried to do to stop Palin, the political insurgent, back in 2005-06 is nothing.

And Chuck and Sally should never ever go online where they might stumble upon the sites portraying their "little girl" as, among other things, a naked porn star in action. Welcome to American politics 2008, Web-style.

--Andrew Malcolm

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Top photo: Sarah Palin's parents. Credit: Al Grillo / Associated Press

Bottom photo: Joseph Kaczmarek / Associated Press

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