JOHN MCCAIN'S political fortunes may be cloudy, but Sarah Palin remains a bright beacon for some voters.
How can that be? Didn't Tina Fey's deadly impersonation on "Saturday Night Live" turn the Alaska governor into a national joke?
Palin's popularity tumbled after several bumbling encounters with the national media, especially a sitdown with CBS anchor Katie Couric. One of McCain's tougher moments during last week's debate with opponent Barack Obama was explaining why his running mate is qualified to be president if something happens to him.
But earlier that day, Palin basked in a warm welcome during a visit to the Granite State, where current polls put Obama in the lead.
A dozen or so Dover High School students taunted McCain/Palin supporters and one carried a sign that said, "Puck Palin." But inside the school auditorium, more than 1,000 people cheered on "Sarah, Sarah, Sarah," while an overflow crowd of about 500 waited outside.
"I loved it. She's like a breath of fresh air, not that pollution in Washington," said Judy Johnson, of Rochester, after hearing Palin speak.
"I think she's phenomenal. She's inspiring. She tells the truth. She speaks from the perspective of everyday people," said Phyllis Woods, of Dover, who is also a Republican National Committeewoman for New Hampshire.
"She is the only one who perked my interest," said Barry Robertson of Danvers, Mass., who drove over the border to New Hampshire to see Palin.
Palin's selection as McCain's running mate, promoted by evangelicals, was a pivotal moment for the GOP. The moose-hunting, ex-beauty queen and hockey mom with a special-needs infant son and a pregnant teenage daughter delighted conservatives and enraged liberals. For about two weeks, Obama couldn't figure out how to handle a female opponent who wore a pencil skirt instead of a pants suit.
Then, the cold economy, not the hot governor, dominated headlines. Conversation turned from Palin's updo to what was going on beneath it. She had trouble answering questions about foreign policy, the Wall Street bailout, and what newspapers she reads. Declaring Palin "out of her league," conservative columnist Kathleen Parker called for Palin to take herself off the ticket.
When the going gets tough, the tough get cute. Palin survived by winking her way through a high-stakes debate with Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, which attracted 70 million viewers.
Polls show Biden is now viewed more favorably than Palin, and more voters have a negative view of McCain's running mate. But for some, Palin remains the new face of the GOP and a possible candidate for president in 2012, with or without a McCain victory in 2008.
"Why can't she be a serious contender? Do we really think people's opinions of candidates are shaped by 'Saturday Night Live'? Or even Katie Couric interviews?" asked Woods. Palin, who was scheduled to be an "SNL" guest last night, represents "common-sense, conservative feet-on-the-ground Republican beliefs," added Woods.
Fans insist Palin's fumbles happened because she was thrown to a hostile media without adequate preparation. After all, they explain, presidential candidates hit New Hampshire years before the next presidential election cycle. They polish their act long before their close-up with Charlie Gibson. Palin backers also believe her good looks and ultra-conservative agenda make her a target for liberals and those women who are suspicious of mothers who buy their baby's diapers at Walmart.
The first wave of attack against Palin had mean and sexist elements. But her own weak performances brought on the second wave. She has much work to do to change the perception that she is a woman who has not spent much time thinking about issues beyond Alaska.
Still, Ann Murphy, a Republican activist in Massachusetts who worked on Mitt Romney campaigns, said Palin "has a bright future, no matter what happens. . . She has shown strength and grit and ability to rise to the occasion."
If her future really is that bright, Romney can't be pleased. He pushed aside one woman, acting Governor Jane Swift, to run for office in Massachusetts.
Palin could be tougher to dislodge.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.