WASHINGTON — Sarah Palin has become a drag on the Republican presidential ticket, the first time in recent political history that a running mate has made such a difference.
Among many independents and moderate Republicans, she's raised serious questions about John McCain's judgment, become too much of a national punch line and reinforced concerns about McCain's age and health.
"Nice lady, no experience. It's so sad. She's a gigantic drag," said Chris DePino, a Republican consultant based in New Haven, Conn.
The Alaska governor does help the ticket somewhat by energizing hard-core Republicans, but polls suggest that overall "she's hurting John McCain," said Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center.
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In a nationwide survey Oct. 16-19, Pew found that 49 percent of respondents had unfavorable views of Palin, while 44 percent saw her favorably. A month earlier, 54 percent had seen her favorably and 32 percent viewed her negatively.
Typically, post-election polls find that vice-presidential choices sway about 1 percent of voters. This time, Kohut said, "we'll get a much bigger number."
A key reason is that "the Palin choice reflects poorly on Senator McCain's judgment," said vice presidential expert Joel Goldstein, a professor of law at St. Louis University.
Pew found that 41 percent of respondents thought McCain showed "poor judgment" overall, while 29 percent said that of Democratic nominee Barack Obama. While McCain's number isn't solely because of his choice of Palin, her selection was a factor.
McCain's age is also a reason for voters' concern about Palin. The Arizona senator is 72 and has had four instances of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. Mayo Clinic physicians have posted a detailed explanation of McCain's condition and treatment on his Web site. The prognosis, they said, was "good."
Worries linger, however.
"If something happened to McCain, she would not be qualified to step in and be president," said Annette Barron, an independent voter from Altamonte Springs, Fla.
Palin also has hurt herself by becoming largely invisible to the general public, except when she got media attention for starting controversies — such as charging that Obama was "palling around with terrorists" — or for receiving $150,000 in clothing and accessories from the Republican Party.
She also unabashedly identifies herself with the party's conservative wing, alienating moderates.
"It reinforced the notion that John McCain cared little about people like me," said former Maine state Rep. Sherry Huber, a Republican who backed McCain in the primary but now supports Obama. "She clearly does not share the values I and other moderate Republicans do."
Prominent Republicans have echoed that idea. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of McCain's closest friends, suggested that Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, would have brought independents to the ticket. Last week, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge said that had McCain picked him, the Republican Party would have had a better shot at winning his state.
Then there's Palin's image problem because of what vice-presidential expert Timothy Walch called "the albatross of American comedy."
"Every time (comedian) Tina Fey appeared on TV imitating her, it diminished Palin," said Walch, the director of the Herbert Hoover presidential library. "For somebody essentially unknown, she's diminished when she becomes a caricature of herself."
In most election years, Palin would have been a footnote, like controversial vice-presidential choices Spiro Agnew in 1968 or Dan Quayle 20 years later. Both were lightly regarded but triumphed on winning tickets.
However, Goldstein, of St. Louis University, noted that in 1968, Richard Nixon was 55, so the prospect of an Agnew presidency seemed dim. In 1988, Quayle ran with George H.W. Bush, who was essentially running for President Reagan's third term against unpopular Democrat Michael Dukakis.
In 2008, Goldstein said, Obama "has convinced a broad cross-section of the American people he's presidential," so Palin gives swing voters who are warming to the Illinois senator one more reason to move away from McCain.
As for Palin's expected appeal to women, Sieglinde Warren, a teaching supervisor from Poland, Ohio, was a Clinton supporter who now backs Obama. Palin and Clinton don't compare, she said, because "Clinton had some substance I could relate to."
To be sure, Palin has had some positive impact on the campaign. McCain had never been a favorite of strict conservatives, as he challenged Republican orthodoxy over the years on tax cuts, campaign finance, climate change and other topics.
The Republican base loves Palin.
"So many people can relate to her. She really appeals to everyday housewives, people who go out and hunt, and people who have done great things in their life," said Bob Dodge, a retired communications engineer in Sarasota, Fla.
And don't tell Jennifer Tarman, a Bradenton, Fla., medical assistant, that Palin, who's been a governor since December 2006, isn't qualified.
"She's more qualified than Obama," she said. Obama's been a U.S. senator since January 2005, but has spent most of the past two years campaigning for the White House.
Still, the experts and a lot of swing voters agree with Goldstein.
"She's made it much more difficult for McCain," he said.
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