Dispatches From Alaska

Watching the VP Debate From Palin’s Home State

I learned that it takes 3000 foot-pounds of energy to stop a brown bear.

This was the reason why the man at the bar, a cargo pilot, carried a .50-caliber rifle whenever he goes out with his two daughters. He also believed that Governor Palin was tough as nails, a force to be reckoned with that could clean up Washington. Our bartender agreed and nearly didn’t want to vote for her because then she wouldn’t be governor anymore. She had been good to the citizens of the state.

I was in Anchorage, Alaska for a mid-week conference on my research. Even though it meant the inconvenience of missing many of my classes, I took the opportunity to talk to as many people as I could and to glean Alaskan perspectives about the vice presidential debate, the Governor, the president campaigns, and the state of Alaska in general.

I had asked a Department of Urban Studies and Planning classmate from Anchorage for recommendations of a good place to watch the debate. She mentioned that I would likely find “wealthy Republicans” at a hotel a few blocks from where the conference was. So I walked over in the 40-degree weather to the Captain Cook hotel where Sarah Palin gave her victory speech for her gubernatorial campaign two years ago.

Plopping down at the bar in an upscale English pub, I noticed that people were excited. The bartender had been asked all day whether the debate would be on but the atypical crowd had a small and vocal Democratic contingent.

The polls going in were not encouraging for Sarah Palin — after the Katie Couric interviews, people were likely not to vote for the GOP ticket simply because of her and a majority believed she was too inexperienced for vice president. According to consensus, the debate was to be Palin’s last stand, a chance to stage a comeback and redeem herself of her gaffs in the most public of arenas. Expectations were low and people were anticipating a train-wreck performance.

Palin and Senator Biden strolled onto the stage with the Governor looking simultaneously funereal and precious in an all-black power dress suit topped with a bow-tie belt. (And while we’re on fashion, what in the world was moderator Gwen Iffil wearing with that sea-green fluffy suit?) Before Palin even made it to her podium, she thanked the audience and the moderator one too many times and looked little like a national politician out to kill.

As the debate started, Palin looked shaky. She spoke confidently and sternly about deregulation and the economy, but not comfortably. However, as the evening wore on, Palin eased into her stride and turned on the high-wattage charm. Her responses were fluid and easy as she proclaimed that she was going to “talk straight to the American people,” that portion of the country that resided on a Main Street consisting of hockey moms and “Joe Six-Pack.”

The evening turned out to be a proxy fight for the presidential candidates’ stances on the middle class. The old grizzled Senator Joe Biden was afraid to directly attack the pretty, winning lady across the stage and he laid into John McCain’s record as often as he could. Palin deflected easily and worked up her smile when quoting Reagan about the “city on the hill” and “government being the problem.” She tried to connect with the audience through her experiences as a busy mom and succeeded.

Palin spent the night straddling the edge between being too folksy and being too cute. During the first half hour, it worked. I couldn’t concentrate when Palin barely contained a smirk during Biden’s response after he flubbed Obama’s name for McCain. Only when the camera finally cut away from both candidates could I stop wondering what was going on in her head.

Afterwards, Palin was sure-footed and in her element when talking about Alaska and energy policy. You could tell by the casual head-toss and near-wink she gave to the camera, letting the nation know that “I’ve got this.”

It was only after her second actual wink and remarking about “Wasilla, Main Street” did the audience in the bar let off a groan. (The line also prompted someone to call out “Bingo” as they won the drinking game “Palin Bingo.”) Palin may have slightly overplayed her informality and congeniality but she flubbed less often than Biden and exceeded the low expectations of her.

Biden ended up looking old and establishment on stage. Credit Palin for forcing Biden to defend everything from his time in Washington to his record on Israel, and even his perspective as a man.

Afterwards, I asked those around me of their opinion on the debate and on Palin. Most people thought she did satisfactorily but not extraordinarily. One man, a shipping executive from the southeastern coast, explained to me that he did not take a liking to her until two months ago. He believed that she had managed the finances of the state quite well but it wasn’t until she reached the national spotlight that he started rooting for her.

In Alaska, you see, Palin is considered too sophisticated by half, a city girl in a frontier state. By being tapped for vice president, though, Palin was now thought of by the nation as the rural huntin’ woman who shoots wolves and fished for salmon. Most of the people I talked to conceded that she was probably in over her head. But to them, it was good that she was there.

The country already viewed Alaskans as destroying their state with oil pipelines and overfishing. In their opinion, calling a public works project “The Bridge to Nowhere” was an insult to a state whose capitol was land-locked and required a flight or a boat ride to get to. As the shipping guy said, “There’s a huge divide between rural America and urban America.” And Alaska was as rural as it got.

It’s no wonder then that Sarah Palin smiled her way through the debate. She succeeded in connecting with that portion of rural Americans that MIT students just don’t see in Cambridge or Boston. And by that measure, Palin had won over the crowd with her charm.

Gary Shu is a graduate student in the Engineering Systems Division.