JUNEAU, Alaska - I stand looking out over a postcard tableau: craggy, snow-dusted peaks framing the Mendenhall Glacier. Red salmon thrash in the creek. Yet the buzz among this small crowd of locals isn't about the bear that just strolled past, but John McCain's selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. For us, Alaska isn't an abstraction, and neither is she; it's just a 20-minute drive from where we stand to the governor's mansion.
(Photo - Alaskan Governor Mom: Sarah Palin drives daughter Piper across a stream / AP)
We Alaskans might be more shocked than you by the rise of this ex-basketball star and small-town beauty queen, who's giving her acceptance speech tonight in St. Paul, on the largest stage of her life. Sunday's editorial cartoon in the Juneau Empire showed a gaggle of us, including a moose and bear, standing in open-mouthed astonishment. But we're looking past the gee-whiz, Northern Exposure angle that enthralls so many "outsiders." Riding a snowmobile and eating mooseburgers just qualifies as normal around here. We're far more focused on the substance of who Palin is and could become, based on what we've witnessed in the paradoxically tiny political arena of the Last Frontier.
Off to a fast start
Two years ago, running as an upstart reformer, she took on the state's GOP elite, defeated the incumbent governor in the primary and then won the general election. All the more amazing, considering that her only previous political experience was as mayor of tiny Wasilla. In her brief tenure as governor, she has managed to slash the state budget, harness bipartisan support for a higher tax on oil corporations and broker a long-sought natural gas pipeline agreement. In the face of soaring energy prices (up to $10 a gallon for gas in rural communities), she ramrodded through a $1,200 energy assistance check to every Alaskan citizen.
In-state opponents - and Palin has her share, despite a public approval rating that has averaged better than 80% - claim that she has been more lucky than skillful, but her record stands. All this while juggling five kids and a marriage to a studly union guy working for a big oil company who's a champion snowmobile racer to boot. Through it all, she has managed to radiate this wholesome-sexy cachet - even as she faces an ongoing state investigation into her alleged abuse of power in the firing of the state's public safety commissioner.
In a state where the constituency runs red as moose blood and folks like their oil drilled, their mines big and their rifles loaded, Palin's got it made. The question is whether what plays in Anchorage will play in Peoria, let alone Boston and San Francisco. Sure, she's charismatic and fresh, and this do-it-all, populist hockey-mom shtick is alluring. To separate style from substance, imagine Palin as a middle-aged white man touting these views: flaunts pride in being a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, is an outspoken pro-life advocate who speaks from fundamentalist conscience.
In a time of ever-rising environmental concern, Palin has unapologetically staked out ground that mainstream science might label extreme. With polar ice just off her north coast melting to record lows, the governor has questioned whether climate change is occurring and has spearheaded a lawsuit against the Bush administration to overturn a recent federal ruling placing polar bears on the endangered species list - in direct denial of unanimous findings by government agencies. She makes no bones about her concern that listing the bears could stall offshore oil development in the Arctic Ocean - grinding pack ice where there is no proven technology to contain, let alone clean up a spill, and Eskimo leaders and biologists warn of the potential for unprecedented ecological disaster. She furthermore favors drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which even McCain has opposed.
In a primary election a week ago, Palin further demonstrated her opposition to environmental concerns as she supported the defeat of two ballot measures that had embroiled Alaskans in divisive debate. The first sought to curtail a controversial predator control program under which private pilots shoot wolves from the air - a program opposed by roughly half of all Alaskans as well as the National Academy of Sciences. (I was a co-sponsor of that initiative.) In the second, her last-minute endorsement, coupled with millions of dollars of advertising bought by mining conglomerates, was instrumental in squelching a proposal that would have restricted large-scale mines from dumping toxic chemicals into waters used by humans or salmon.
Palin's stance will play well in red states with pro-development, GOP-base politics similar to Alaska's. But I can't imagine a less than vehement backlash as conservation, animal-rights and pro-choice groups marshal their followers.
One thing is certain: The lines in this presidential race are drawn even sharper than we could have expected. The question looms: Is America ready to embrace Sarah Palin and her fresh-from-Alaska politics?
Nick Jans is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.