Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Political Teams Battle to Define Palin in Alaska

A new battleground is emerging in the presidential race, and it’s not a swing state like Ohio or Florida. The fight is in Alaska, and it’s over the ability to define Sarah Palin.

Alaska, rich with gobbets of information on Palin’s personal and political past, is the new political frontier.

According to reports, a “mini-army” of Democratic lawyers and operatives has descended on the home state of John McCain’s running mate to open the books on her past, and the Barack Obama campaign is trucking out a group of Alaskan supporters whose mission is to “set the record straight” on the governor’s career.

The McCain campaign, likewise, has sent a team — much as it did during the Democratic National Convention — to launch a counteroffensive of its own in Alaska. The campaign also has formed a “truth squad” of McCain-Palin supporters to defend Palin when it feels she is unjustly attacked.

The proxy war has led to recriminations on both sides, and it will probably last through Election Day.

In the center of it all are questions over Palin’s religious beliefs, her family, her record on pork-barrel spending and an ethics inquiry into whether she fired a former public safety commissioner because he would not dismiss a trooper who was going through a divorce from Palin’s sister.

McCain’s campaign launched an ad Wednesday invoking a Wall Street Journal article that reported that 30 Democratic lawyers and researchers were digging around in Juneau, Anchorage and Palin’s home town of Wasilla.

“The attacks on Governor Palin have been called completely false, misleading, and they’ve just begun,” the narrator says, referencing the article. “As Obama drops in the polls, he’ll try to destroy her.”

Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor released a statement refuting the Journal article, saying “neither the Obama campaign nor the DNC have sent researchers to Alaska.”

But the campaign does not specifically deny that Democratic lawyers are researching Palin in Alaska, either from in-state firms or out-of-state independent groups that support Obama. They only deny having sent them.

The Democratic National Committee also denies having any researchers on the ground.

“The Democratic National Committee has zero lawyers, zero, zilch, nada in Alaska,” DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse told “I don’t know of any lawyers or researchers from the outside that have been sent into Alaska.”

But McHugh Pierre, with the Alaska Republican Party, told he’s personally seen and spoken with Democratic operatives in the state looking into Palin.

“They’ve got a ton of people. They’ve got like three dozen staff here,” he said. “They’re knocking on doors. They’re everywhere.”

He said he spoke with a few who were knocking on doors in Anchorage, and who said they were working for the Obama campaign.

The Obama campaign seemed to leave a little wiggle room in its description of the situation Wednesday.

Asked about the claims, spokesman Josh Earnest took issue with the charge in the Journal and McCain ad that operatives were “airdropped” into Alaska.

“That’s just not true,” he said on a conference call, adding: “There are no Obama or DNC staffers or researchers that were airdropped into Alaska.”

But his objection centered more on the alleged importation of Democratic lawyers than on their actual presence in the state.

Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles and Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein, two Obama supporters on the call, tried to brush off the charge.

Weinstein said he’s “not aware” of any Democratic lawyers in the state researching Palin.

But he also said: “I’m not surprised, whether it’s Democrats or media, coming to Alaska to find out who is this person, what is really her record, what are her truth beliefs?”

Knowles and Weinstein are part of the newly formed Alaska Mythbusters, which on Wednesday held the conference call to accuse Palin of supporting the very earmarks, such as the “Bridge to Nowhere,” that she claims to have defeated, and to raise questions about the trooper inquiry.

“That is a very serious ethical charge, and whether it’s for personal vendetta or personal gain, a person in public office cannot use their power to achieve those ends,” Knowles said.

The trooper investigation will no doubt be a hot topic in the race to define Palin, along with earmarks. Though the McCain-Palin ticket touts itself as the scourge of pork-barrelers, Palin has requested nearly $200 million in earmarks this year.

Obama hasn’t asked for any earmarks this year, but he sought $311 million worth last year. McCain doesn’t seek earmarks for his state and routinely pledges to make authors of such wasteful requests “famous.”

As the debate churns, the McCain campaign is also on the ground in Alaska.

Spokesman Taylor Griffin said he’s set up shop with eight other members of the McCain campaign in Anchorage to “counter the smears at Sarah Palin that are coming from the Democratic side.”

He called the trooper investigation “politically motivated,” and said he’s working hand-in-hand with McCain headquarters to refute Palin criticisms.

“It’s absolutely unprecedented, the level of attacks that have been made against Sarah Palin and her family,” he said.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said it should come as no surprise that Democrats are doing detailed research on Palin, since she was introduced to a national audience less than two weeks ago. He said only Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Dan Quayle in 1988 generated this kind of surprise response.

“When a presidential candidate surprises the country with a relatively unknown choice, then all hell breaks loose,” Sabato said. “It did with Ferraro, it did with Quayle, it’s happening with Palin.

“The surprise guarantees that the other side hasn’t done the research,” he said.

Sabato said the key Democratic objective with Palin is probably to find controversial statements made at churches Palin has attended, to counteract criticism Obama faced over the fiery sermons of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright Jr.

Indeed, a former pastor of Palin has been quoted telling followers in 2004 that he questioned whether people who voted for John Kerry could receive salvation. He also described the Iraq war as a battle for the survival of Christianity.

Palin, however, left that church — the Wasilla Assembly of God — in 2002.

“They’re trying to gather information to negate the Rev. Wright,” Sabato said. “Politics is just one big game of tit for tat.”

FOX News’ Judson Berger, Carl Cameron and Dan Springer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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