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A Palinomenon: John McCain waves and the crowd chants "Sa-rah! Sa-rah!"

September 8, 2008 |  5:22 am

Here's something to maybe watch for.

Sarah Palin is no William Miller. Nor is she a Spiro T. Agnew. Both those guys were Republican political nobodies picked by prominent presidential candidates (Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon) to go along and fill out the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket becAlaska Governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palinause somebody had to do it.

Judging by the news coverage in recent days -- and by measurable reader response to items about the Alaska governor, including this widely-viewed Palin fashion photo gallery -- Palin is No. 1 on the Republican ticket, even though she's really No. 2.

With Sen. John McCain, the presidential nominee standing there grinning, their joint crowds spontaneously break out in chants of "Sa-rah! Sa-rah! Sa-rah!" Her upswept hairstyle is reportedly being widely copied, according to people who notice such things.

Her eyeglass frames are flying off the shelves. Stories on her routinely rank among the most-read on this website and others. In nine months we should check the Social Security Administration's listing of most popular baby girl names.

How long do you think that will go down well with the far better-known top of the ticket, who hardly has enough hair to sweep over the top, let alone up?

He snatched the 44-year-old female reformer from the....

...political oblivion of the largest state, where her approval rating had slipped to 80%, about 10 times better than Congress' approval rating. And McCain threw her onto the national stage.

Where she didn't stumble. Yet.

This surprise really angered many, including some in the national media, whose members are generally so well connected to Democrats that they knew Barack Obama's VP pick was Joe Biden almost as quickly as Joe Biden did.

But the Republicans are something else. They had the nerve to make a surprise pick and keep it a surprise that hardly anyone knew until the last moment. OK, The Ticket did have an advance inkling.

So the McCain campaign paid a price in not always the best coverage for a few days until Palin's convention speech gave some 37 million TV viewers their very own first impression.

From the McCain camp's point of view, the priceless beauty of the initially dubious news coverage, with its often catty, gotcha tone, was that it dramatically lowered the bar of expectations. If Sarah Palin walked onto that St. Paul stage in anything other than a halter top and fishnet stockings with a slit skirt, she would be a huge hit, guaranteed. 

Palin's pronounced if practiced normalcy -- talking about "my guy," snowmobiles and hockey moms -- actually energized what was previously scheduled to be another somnolent, soporific session for the GOP, naming two more white guys in well-pressed suits and new haircuts tearing themselves away from their investments and the golf course long enough to give this White House business a go.

Alaska's first female governor even won over Rush Limbaugh, the conservative broadcast grump who's all for the Palin-McCain ticket now.

Before the first janitor swept the first speck of confetti off the floor of the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul last Thursday night, McCain and Palin were off together on their political honeymoon -- to Milwaukee, of all places.

Alaska Governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin helps her husband on their commercial fishing boat

And they have campaigned together ever since.

According to campaign notes passed on by The Times' Maeve Reston, McCain's closest aide, Mark Salter, today said, "They're having a good time together. They're riding a lot of momentum coming out of the convention."

Reston notes in her own story that McCain is a noticeably feistier, more energetic candidate with Palin around. Funny how that works. Gov. George W. Bush's campaign handlers had Laura travel with him all fall of 2000 for precisely the same reason.

Never mind the media complaints, it's a smart strategy for the McCain camp to give Palin a few days to gain her campaign legs and voice, get comfortable with her new staff and the talking points before sending her out solo, probably later this week.

Palin wasn't on any of the Sunday morning talk shows this weekend, which gave the Democrats a momentary talking point. "If she's afraid to talk with Tom Brokaw, how's she gonna handle Vladimir Putin?"

Putin, of course, has no vote on Nov. 4. And the trouble is, all the yada-yada programs ended up talking about Palin anyway in absentia. Even the top of the Democratic ticket had to talk about the Republicans' No. 2, a real no-no in the traditional rules of political engagement.

It's one thing to enter a knife fight against Sen. Hillary Clinton in the pantsuit primaries. (And, by the way, did you notice how she took a pass at taking a swipe at Palin this weekend?)

It's another thing to take on a hockey mom of five who gets everyone breakfast before driving herself off to run a state, hunts on the weekends, helps her husband with their joint commercial fishing business (see photo) and still manages to look great for the 5 p.m. news, when she vows to veto a bill that would bar health benefits to same-sex partners.

Sunday, off doing her homework, Palin didn't -- couldn't -- make any mistakes. Later this week, ABC News' Charles Gibson will interview Palin several times back on her home Alaska turf, as she sends her 19-year-old Army son off to Iraq.

Gibson's a pro. He'll ask some hard questions. And they won't be about Fairbanks traffic. The governor had better be ready. If the emerging pattern fits, ABC will get a ratings bonanza as the nation pursues its raging Sarah curiosity.

And one thing about the media that's just like life back in high school: the harder those dates with Sarah are to get, the more desirable they become. Watch for them to be strung out all autumn.

Oh, and another good thing about Palin's brief return home: The top of the GOP ticket can get back to hearing the crowds cheer him for a change.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Photo credits: Getty Images (top); Office of the Governor, Alaska (bottom).

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