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Joan Vennochi

Sarah Palin's song and dance

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / September 7, 2008
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ST. PAUL
CAN SARAH PALIN pick up where Hillary Clinton left off?

Palin wowed delegates with a confident, cutting speech aimed at hockey moms with a chip on their shoulder.

She could have been singing along to Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" - "Some people look down on me, but I don't give a rip. I'll stand barefooted in my own front yard with a baby on my hip."

It was great theater. But to John McCain, all that really matters is whether his running mate can pick up where Clinton left off and expand the GOP voter base.

The aging Joni Mitchell crowd makes up Clinton's most faithful following. But during the Democratic primary season, Clinton also wooed Gretchen Wilson territory and went after Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter" - along with their men.

Now, the GOP is trying to steal away those voters by appealing to them on cultural issues.

Democrats expect most Clinton backers to stick with Barack Obama because of such issues as the economy and the Iraq war.

But politics isn't all in the head; a lot is in the heart. That's where Palin comes in.

Besides igniting the culture wars that historically help the GOP, Palin also fanned the flames of the gender wars Clinton tried to smother in Denver.

Questions about Palin's qualifications and ability to juggle children and career dominated convention headlines, along with the soap opera revolving around the candidate's 17-year-old pregnant, unmarried daughter.

Taking a page from the Clinton campaign handbook, the first-term governor of Alaska and former mayor of Wasilla skillfully turned the criticism into a sexist attack by Washington elites.

It worked in the convention hall. But once the novelty of Palin's candidacy begins to rub off, she still must answer for her weak resume and right-wing ideology.

And how long can she play the attack dog, before reminding voters of that famous Barbara Bush assessment of Geraldine Ferraro: "rhymes with rich"?

"Women are scrutinized to a different degree than men. People are always worried about whether a woman is up to the job," said Barbara Lee, who runs a foundation that conducts research on female candidates, especially for governor.

It isn't fair or right. But so far, there's no reason to believe the rules of political engagement are any different for a Republican than they are for a Democrat.

Obama beat Clinton, a former first lady and US senator, by raising doubts about her experience. His running mate, Joe Biden, has been a US senator for more than three decades and is considered an expert on foreign policy. When Palin goes head-to-head in a debate, she will have to show depth and knowledge that match her opponent's. Biden will help disguise any of her weaknesses if he is patronizing or overbearing, both distinct possibilities.

Palin's speech set out the outlines of the Republican attack against Obama: he will raise taxes and expand government. A big part of the GOP strategy is to paint Obama as an out-of-touch elitist.

Despite the bravado, it's hard to see how Palin's beliefs attract a critical mass of core Clinton backers. Palin opposes abortion. She's a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. She was for pork before she was against it. She describes the war in Iraq as "a task from God." And those are just the highlights of a political agenda that resonates strongly with evangelicals.

A recent CBS poll showed the race tied between Obama and McCain. In the poll, McCain has the edge with men. But Obama continues to have a lead with women. The poll also shows the majority of Clinton supporters continue to support Obama - 67 percent in this poll, up from 58 percent.

Can Palin's play for Clinton voters work?

It could depend on how many women - and men - agree with this verse from "Redneck Woman"

"You may think I'm trashy, a little too hardcore. But in my neck of the woods, I'm just the girl next door."

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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