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joan vennochi | WEB EXCLUSIVE

For Jane Swift, harsh spotlight on Palin has familiar feel

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / September 2, 2008
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ST. PAUL—Jane Swift, the former acting governor of Massachusetts, hopes voters will start focusing on Sarah Palin's record as governor of Alaska and stop focusing on questions about her family.

But Swift is not surprised that, first, "folks are obsessing with the personal aspects of her life."

Swift, an early John McCain supporter, is protective about his surprise pick for running mate, especially when it comes to the media frenzy over Palin's family.

"I wish people showed more discretion with me," said Swift. She wishes the same for Palin.

The focus on Palin's 17-year-old, pregnant, unmarried daughter "is so far beyond the pale of what's appropriate," she said.

To Swift, the harsh spotlight on Palin has a familiar feel. Swift was pregnant with twins when, as lieutenant governor, she took over for Paul Cellucci when he left the governor's office before his term was up. Her personal life was criticized and her qualifications questioned.

Maternity, not policy, defined Swift's stint on Beacon Hill. Her use of aides to babysit and a state helicopter to fly home were covered as major scandals. Her marriage to a contractor, not a power broker, was another favorite media topic.

"The public reaction is different to women in executive positions. There's a real gender difference," said Swift.

Swift is right, said Barbara Lee, who runs a Massachusetts-based foundation that promotes women for political office and conducts research on women seeking executive office. "Women are scrutinized to a different degree than men. People are always worried about whether a woman is up to the job."

Swift's underlying problem was stature. She couldn't change the perception that she lacked it.

That is Palin's problem, too. In some ways, the emphasis on her personal story may be a welcome distraction from equally tough questions about her record, as well as her readiness to be vice president in the administration of a 72-year-old President McCain.

McCain supposedly picked Palin for her conservative credentials, maverick qualities, and potential to connect with ordinary voters, particularly women of a certain demographic. Palin is a self-described "hockey mom" of five children; the youngest, born five months ago, has Down syndrome. She revealed her daughter's pregnancy this week to end the rumors, started by left-wing bloggers, that her daughter is actually the mother of the newest member of the Palin family.

"We need to get beyond our fascination with Sarah Palin's children and focus on her record," said Swift. "It does dovetail perfectly with the McCain record ... She has experience in government and in taking on the special interests. How she got into government is how many women get in. That will resonate with voters."

Palin, a former beauty queen contestant and sportscaster, was elected mayor of Wasilla (population 6,700) at age 32. Elected governor of Alaska in 2006, she honed an image as a reformer who took on the establishment.

That, at least, was the image. Since McCain unveiled this political mystery woman, rips in the reformer mantle are starting to appear.

Palin this week hired a private lawyer to deal with allegations that she abused her power in dismissing the state's public safety commissioner. The Washington Post also reported that she employed a lobbying firm to get $27 million in federal earmarks for Wasilla, an effort that runs counter to McCain's introduction of her as a passionate ally in the fight against wasteful government spending.

Asked what Palin must do to persuade voters she has the necessary gravitas when it comes to foreign policy and national security, Swift said, "She needs to demonstrate insight and understanding of policy, just like a first-term senator needs to demonstrate insight and understanding of policy."

From the GOP perspective, Democrats who question Palin's experience are also acknowledging Barack Obama's relative inexperience.

But Obama has spent the last year and a half introducing himself to American voters.

Palin has a much shorter period of time to tell voters what she wants them to know about her record. Keeping her family out of it will be even harder for her than it was for Swift.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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