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Election 2008:

Why Palin softened her rhetoric

Shift, in Henderson, to message aimed at women reflects polling


Steve Marcus

Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee, poses with supporters Tuesday in Henderson at a rally that produced a change in the candidate’s tone.

Updated Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008 | 2:42 p.m.

Palin Rallies in Henderson

Sarah Palin visited Henderson Tuesday for some last minute campaigning.

Palin speaks in Henderson

Republican vice presidential nominee Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, left, arrives for a rally with daughters Piper, right, 7, and Willow, center, 13, and son Trig (held by Willow) in Henderson, Nev. Oct. 21, 2008. Launch slideshow »

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Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin unveiled a new stump speech before a crowd of thousands at the Henderson Pavilion, appealing directly to women and softening her overall tone.

“It’s about time we shattered that glass ceiling once and for all,” said Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee.

And the chant went up: “Sarah! Sarah! Sarah!”

Palin offered a range of women- and family-friendly policy proposals not usually heard from Republican candidates.

She called for equal-pay-for-equal-work and more family-friendly policies such as flexible workweeks. She offered an homage to the federal law requiring that women’s collegiate sports have the same resources as men’s.

She castigated the subjugation of women abroad.

Meet Sarah Palin, feminist extraordinaire.

Moreover, although she indirectly called Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama a socialist, that was the brunt of her attack, with none of the accusations of recent weeks that he is a pal of terrorists.

The calculation in deploying this softer, gauzier speech was savvy, if transparent. Picked by Sen. John McCain as a candidate who would draw independent women, polls show that Palin has instead become a drag on his candidacy, a polarizing figure and the least popular of all four of the major nominees. Her qualifications – she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, from 1996 to 2002 — rank as voters’ top concern about McCain’s candidacy, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Forty-seven percent of respondents view Palin negatively, with 38 percent viewing her positively.

Palin’s image has deteriorated following unsuccessful national TV interviews that showed her unable to discuss some issues authoritatively, as well as rallies in which her supporters seemed unhinged.

Michael McDonald, an expert in voter behavior at the Brookings Institution and George Mason University, said the strategy of softening the Palin image makes sense.

Voters still undecided at this point may not decide their vote on some reasoned, issue-based argument. The voters Palin was pursuing Tuesday are most susceptible to an emotional appeal, McDonald said.

So, Palin talked about helping families, like her own, with special-needs children and said they would have a voice in the White House.

For the most part, Palin has worked in Republican strongholds where she finds ready acceptance of her harsh attacks. Her appearance in Northern Nevada earlier Tuesday was no exception.

The trip to moderate, suburban Henderson hours later was the perfect place to try out a tempered message, said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Although there was plenty of political carnivoria in the crowd, with shouts of “socialist!” and Nobama T-shirts, the event featured some surprising atmospherics, as well. Sitting behind Palin were Linda Klinge, vice president of the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women, as well as the wealthy heiress and Democratic activist Lynn Forester de Rothschild.

Indeed, the Palin message resonated with some in the crowd, and especially supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton, the failed Democratic candidate.

Barbara Dimmick is a registered Democrat who volunteered for Clinton’s campaign during the caucus. When Clinton lost, she said, she was devastated — until McCain announced Palin.

“I wasn’t going to vote at all,” said Dimmick, who was laid off from her job as a cage cashier at Circus Circus in August. “Then Sarah jumped in and got my vote ... We need women in politics. It’s long overdue.”

She voted early for McCain.

Marge Cameron, who’s 78 and a registered Democrat, also supported Clinton in the caucus: “Hillary started it, and Sarah’s going to finish it,” she said.

The problem for Palin, and, ultimately, McCain, is that the public doesn’t see the Republican Party as a credible messenger on behalf of equality or policies important to women. Obama is beating McCain among women by 15 percentage points, according the Hotline/Diageo daily tracking poll.

And, as McDonald noted, “it’s not clear that (Palin’s) the best messenger for this.”

Duffy noted that most Democratic women were pro-abortion-rights before they were pro-Hillary.

Both Palin and McCain oppose abortion, including in cases of rape and incest. McCain opposed legislation, the so-called Lilly Ledbetter law, that would have helped women sue employers found to have discriminated against them. (It would have eliminated the statute of limitations on suing for gender discrimination; McCain said it was a boon to the litigious trial lawyer lobby.)

On other issues of importance to women, including education and health care, Republicans have trouble competing.

Moreover, the public is suspicious of Republicans playing so-called identity politics, after years of denouncing it.

Gloriana Kaiser, who was wearing a T-shirt with Palin as Rosie the Riveter, doesn’t think the vice-presidential candidate should win support from women just because she’s also a women.

“It shouldn’t just be about that,” said Kaiser, 18, adding she supports Palin because of her opposition to gun control and abortion.

But even if Palin isn’t successful persuading women voters to move into the Republican column in the coming two weeks, there’s plenty of time before 2012.

(Editor's note: This story has been corrected. An earlier version did not give the correct year for when Palin served as mayor.)

Michael J. Mishak and Megan McCloskey contributed to this report.

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