John McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate is a surprise not just because all of the signals coming out of his campaign earlier this week had been pointing in drastically different directions. In part, it's a surprise because she's still a relative newcomer on the national political scene.
Palin, 44, has been in her current job since only December 2006. Before that, she served for four years, from 1992 until 1996, on the Wasilla, Alaska, City Council; after that, she served until 2002 as mayor of the same city.
Of course, Palin's relative lack of high-level experience will be noted frequently over the coming days, especially given the intensive focus on Barack Obama's own experience. That would seem to be a downside to the pick for the McCain campaign -- it makes it that much harder for Republicans to attack Obama on that front.
However, the Palin pick offers McCain some important advantages. First, obviously, she's a woman, and given the political climate this year, that could prove to be important for McCain's campaign. Not only could she help the Arizona senator pull away some of the Democrats who were supporters of Hillary Clinton and remain disaffected, she might help blunt the narrative about Obama's campaign being historic and turn some media attention back to McCain.
Perhaps just as important for McCain, who has at times had trouble appealing to his party's base, Palin is very popular with conservatives. She has earned the approval of economic conservatives, and is a powerful symbol for social conservatives -- when informed last year that the baby she was carrying had Down syndrome, she opted against having an abortion.
Moreover, there's another politically advantageous member of her family: Her son Track, the eldest of her children, is in the Army and is expected to deploy to Iraq this fall. That could counter the emotional impact of the deployment of Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden's son Beau.
Moreover, Palin is extremely popular in her home state; some polls have shown her with an 80 percent approval rate. The only drawback there is that Alaska Republicans have been severely tarnished by ethics scandals of late, and Palin herself hasn't been able to escape investigation.