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Dick Polman — Palin polishes McCain’s image

At least in symbolic terms, John McCain has already taken the first big step toward putting his imprint on the Republican Party.

By picking a young female governor and mother of five as his running mate, he is signaling his intention to shake things up and scrap the traditional GOP paradigm. Indeed, that is his prime task this week, as he seeks to position his candidacy for the autumn race. He rightly decided that he needed to effectuate a marketing overhaul, if only because the Bush-Cheney team has damaged the party "brand" so badly.

The choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin provides a window into McCain’s election strategy. Mindful that fewer voters describe themselves as Republicans than at any other time in recent years, McCain knows he’s toast unless he can swing the independents. And he cannot do that unless he reclaims his former image as a maverick reformer.

Palin is designed to be Exhibit A. She defeated an ethics-challenged incumbent governor two years ago; she canceled the infamous "bridge to nowhere." And by dint of her sex, she helps McCain make the case that Democrats this year do not have the monopoly on "change," that the Republicans are arguably just as keen to practice diversity.

But McCain is also well aware that although he may be the Republican nominee, he still is viewed with suspicion by many of the conservatives who dominate the party.

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The fact is, McCain nailed down the GOP nomination in three contests (New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida) without ever winning a majority or plurality of self-described conservatives. He was basically saved by moderates, independents and, in Florida, Latinos.

This means that the conservatives who still control the party apparatus are not beholden to the Republican nominee. It sets up an interesting tension.

Palin’s other important roleis as an ambassador to the base. As governor, she has signed tax cuts and shaped up the state budget (thereby reassuring economic conservatives); she is a lifelong NRA member and an abortion opponent who decided to give birth to her fifth child after a diagnosis of Down syndrome.

The choice of Palin also apparently reflects McCain’s belief that the GOP will benefit from a fresh face. She’ll be a great story — former basketball player, former beauty queen — if only because the press is drawn to novelty, and she can work the female voters in swing states by sharing a personal story that no previous Republican running mate could ever provide.

The big puzzle is the inexperience factor. McCain, who is by instinct a gambler, has calculated that Palin’s zero exposure to national-security issues will not hinder the Republican ticket.

He’ll surely trumpet his foreign-policy seasoning — while omitting his manifest failure to ask any hard questions during the run-up to war in Iraq — and undoubtedly his surrogates will retell the familiar POW story. It’s a linchpin of his appeal. McCain figures that his character assets are powerful enough to trump any concerns about Palin’s readiness to command in an emergency.

But still, McCain always contends that the defeat of terrorism is the seminal issue of our time, and now he wants to position, one heartbeat away, a politician whose security experience consists of commanding the Alaska National Guard. (In 1992, the GOP ridiculed Bill Clinton by pointing out that he had merely commanded the Arkansas National Guard.)

Republicans are planning to talk at length about Barack Obama’s alleged lack of preparedness to command, yet it feels as if McCain has risked taking that theme off the table. Voters might well compare Palin’s credentials to those of Joseph R. Biden Jr., who presumably will trump her on foreign policy and win their debate with ease, provided he is not seen as having bullied her.

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Nevertheless, McCain has undercut the Democratic narrative about an opposition candidate rooted in the past.

McCain’s bold decision is a signal to independent voters — a necessary signal — that he intends to point the party forward, into the future. It’s the only way he can win.

Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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