Skip to comments.Palin's losing bid for office set stage for rise
Posted on 09/13/2008 2:51:46 PM PDT by Jet Jaguar
The story of Palins narrow loss in Alaskas 2002 lieutenant governors race is a familiar political tale of an ambitious up-and-comer. Photo: AP
Sarah Palins meteoric political career is marked by a series of impressive election wins broken only by a single, largely overlooked loss for lieutenant governor in 2002.
Yet that defeat, as much as any of her victories, set the trajectory that has taken her to the brink of the vice presidency in just six years.
The story of Palins narrow loss in Alaskas 2002 lieutenant governors race is a familiar political tale of an ambitious up-and-comer seeking to make the leap from small-town politics to statewide office.
For some aspiring politicians, the loss might have proved fatal. But in Palins case it proved to be a serendipitous event that paved the way for her stunning victory four years later in the governor's race and her even more stunning turn as John McCains Republican vice presidential running mate this year.
The 2002 GOP primary race marked Palins first steps toward the reform persona that has become her brand, and the result she finished a close second in a field with three better-known candidates firmly established her as a rising star in Alaska politics.
But none of it would have mattered if she had actually pulled off the upset in 2002.
Thats because she would have been paired that year at the top of the Republican ticket with the partys nominee for governor, Frank Murkowski. Though he cruised to victory in the general election, the controversies that swirled around his governorship came to symbolize the endemic corruption that Palin would later seize as her top issue.
Four years later, she would crush Murkowski in the GOP gubernatorial primary on her way to becoming Alaskas youngest and first female governor.
Few Alaskans could have envisioned such a scenario in 2002, though. Back then, Murkowski was serving his fourth term in the U.S. Senate and was an Alaska political titan, while Palin was a 39-year-old lame-duck mayor little known outside her small hometown of Wasilla. See Also
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Though her successes in Wasilla made her extremely popular there, Palin had yet to develop a cogent political identity or a statewide profile. With term limits about to force her from office, her next political move was unclear.
She was seen as this up-and-comer out there, but most people thought she was going to run for the legislature or something like that go through the normal ascension ladder, said John Bitney, a longtime state capitol hand who grew up with Palin and became a top aide to her 2006 gubernatorial campaign and administration. But she didnt mess around. She didnt want to spend any time in minor league ball.
Murkowski had declared his intention to run for governor as early as 2001, so that race was out of the question. But the lieutenant governorship didnt seem like such a stretch, especially after Palin received encouragement from Murkowski, who was angling for better position in a likely general election showdown with the front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, outgoing Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, the first woman to serve in that office.
The Murkowski campaign was thinking it wouldnt hurt to have a woman on the ticket like Palin, said Willis Lyford, an Anchorage-based GOP media consultant who had worked on state legislative campaigns with Murkowskis daughter, Lisa Murkowski.
A close confidant of Frank Murkowski suggested Lyford consider working for Palin after he was passed over by the GOP lieutenant governor candidate for whom he had hoped to work, former House Speaker Gail Phillips, considered by many the early favorite.
Like much of the states political establishment, Lyford didnt know much about Palin, but he distinctly remembers their first meeting in Wasilla.
She came out from behind her desk and was wearing a navy blue turtleneck and these leather boots that were up over her knees, like thigh-high, and I thought immediately to myself: This is not a look you often see on a Republican, Lyford said.
Once he got beyond Palins presentation, he said he found her sharp, personable, a quick study, capable, committed the whole package. And my assessment of her right from the get-go was all she needed was visibility and exposure.
That seemed a daunting task, given the unusually strong field of candidates for the lieutenant governor's race, three of whom had been eyeing the governors race until Murkowskis declaration scared them away. Besides Phillips, the field included state Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman, and veteran state Sen. Robin Taylor.
Not only did all three better-known candidates raise more than triple the anemic $49,000 Palin brought in for her race, but they also seemed to own important aspects of the messages she had wielded effectively in her Wasilla elections.
During her 1996 mayors race, Palin ran as a social and religious conservative, defeating three-term incumbent mayor John Stein partly by emphasizing wedge issues such as abortion and gun control an unprecedented approach in Wasilla, where municipal races were typically decided on mundane local governance issues such as infrastructure and schools.
In her 1999 rematch with Stein, though, Palin cast herself as something of a pragmatic technocrat, calling for the town to stay the course, and touting the passage of a $5.5 million road and sewer bond.
But in the 2002 lieutenant governors race, Leman, well known as an evangelical Christian, had locked down the religious vote, while he, Phillips and Taylor all had Palin beat on the state-level experience front.
So Palin cast herself as a breath of fresh air an outsider with hands-on executive experience who was not beholden to either corporate fat cats or the fractious state political establishment, and who was not seeking the states No. 2 spot as a stepping stone to the governors office.
Im not gunning for his job, she wrote in response to a question posed by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner newspaper.
As she got into state politics, she moved off the abortion issue and those kinds of things, and in place of that she brought in transparency in government and reform, said Stein, the former mayor ousted by Palin. You sort of got the sense watching her that shes hunting for issues or causes on which she can hang her candidacy. And she has done a great job at it.
Palin also had a knack for retail politics, a valuable talent in a state with a small population like Alaska, said Bitney, Palins 2006 gubernatorial campaign aide. If you go watch her work a crowd, shes just gifted with a talent of being able to connect to people, craft a message, stay focused. Shes very controlled in how she delivers a message.
It didnt hurt that Palin, a former Miss Wasilla meeting statewide voters for the first time, was easy on the eyes, said her friend and 2002 campaign manager, Judy Patrick.
When youre in a really extremely low-budget situation, you take a hard inventory of your assets and you use your assets however you can. That was an asset, said Patrick, who served on the Wasilla City Council while Palin was mayor.
A photographer and graphic designer by trade, Patrick distributed black and white business-card-sized handouts featuring Palins photo on one side and campaign bullet points on the other.
It wasnt just that she was physically attractive, it was part of a strategy to make people remember her, said Patrick.
With leaked private polls showing Palin closing in on Leman on the strength of late-breaking undecideds in the final weeks, the race grew heated. In the days before the late August primary, reporters anonymously received copies of court records mistakenly listing Palins 1993 fishing permit violation as a felony, while Patrick said she fielded threatening letters and phone calls warning Palin to get out of the race.
She didnt flinch and instead, in consultation with her husband, Todd, considered dumping some of their own money into the campaign, according to Lyford.
I said, No. Save your money were not going to win, Lyford recalled, though he now concedes Palin might have pulled it off with a little more cash or two more weeks of campaigning.
Still, on election night, Palin was virtually knotted with Leman, until results from rural precincts pushed him ahead and ultimately gave him a tight 1,962-vote win.
We never considered her loss a loss, said Patrick. We were just pleased that shed come within [2,000] votes of the top vote-getter with essentially no money. That established her as a statewide talent. And so we knew that the stage was set for her to go on to other things. Of course, we had no idea at that time what other things were.
Palin campaigned for the successful Murkowski/Leman ticket. And, when Murkowski took office, he reportedly considered her as one of many possible successors to fill his vacated U.S. Senate seat. He ultimately chose his daughter Lisa, a move that immediately earned the enmity of many Alaskans.
Palin twice turned down administration jobs from Murkowski, before accepting an appointment to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, where in 2004 she helped launch an ethics probe into the dealings of a fellow commissioner, state GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich.
That act of political heresy didnt help her standing within the party, but it solidified her credentials as an outsider and a reformer and launched her on her way to winning the governorship in a 2006 election defined by distrust for the Republican establishment, which was also reeling from a legislative corruption scandal at the time.
Had Palin either won the 2002 lieutenant governors race or been selected to fill the Senate seat, she wouldnt have been able to ride the wave, asserted Lyford.
She would have been part of the problem, he said.
There are parallels between her 2002 race and her current campaign, Patrick asserted. She said some of Palins Wasilla friends are hoping her vice presidential race also ends with a loss that propels her even further, perhaps into a successful 2012 presidential campaign.
I guess it wouldnt surprise me, Patrick said. Nothing surprises me anymore.
That's why Hillary won't even think about stepping into Biden's shoes. No way she wants to be tied to O-ver-bama.