Politics & Policy

Why the Palin Baby Story Matters

What it means to evangelical voters.

St. Paul — At 6:30 Monday morning, at a hotel here in St. Paul, a team of senior McCain staffers got word from even more senior staffers that there was news about vice-presidential pick Sarah Palin. Everybody had heard the rumors, spread on The Atlantic and DailyKos websites, that Palin’s fifth child, Trig, born last April, was not really hers — that Trig was really Palin’s 17 year-old daughter’s child, and Palin faked pregnancy to cover up her daughter’s condition. None of that was true, they all knew. But the top McCain staffers revealed that a story would be breaking on the wires in a few hours reporting that Palin’s daughter, Bristol, is, in fact, pregnant now. The father is Bristol’s boyfriend, the staffers were told, and she intends to marry him.

The McCain aides’ assignment was to call a list of about 40 top evangelical and other cultural conservative leaders. Each one would get a personal explanation of the story, and each was asked for his or her reaction. The McCain people reached nearly everyone before the story broke, and the verdict was unanimous — all the leaders supported Palin and her place on the McCain ticket.

The news spread throughout the day as GOP delegates arrived at the Xcel Energy Center for an abbreviated first session of the convention. Unlike the press, which was buzzing about the story from the first moment, a number of delegates were in the dark for a good part of the day; they were going from event to event, often on a bus, and didn’t have time to catch up. Nobody did a poll or took a roll-call vote, so it’s not exactly clear how many support Palin and McCain’s choice of her as vice president. But the number appears to be very, very high.

When the day’s business was over, I drifted around the Colorado and Ohio delegations — two critical swing states — to get a feel for the delegates’ reaction. In the Colorado section, I ran into Sue Sharkey, from Windsor. When I asked what she thought, her reaction was not about Palin but herself.

“For me personally, it hit my heart this morning,” Sharkey told me, “because I was a 17 year-old girl, just like Sarah Palin’s daughter, and I had — I was in those shoes. And my son is with me, who will be 35 years old next week, and so I know what a difficult road there is for her.”

“I chose to have my son, and from that point I realized that I was a very strong right-to-life advocate,” Sharkey continued, her voice wavering ever so slightly. Roe v. Wade had been passed just the year before, and I already knew girls who were going through abortions. It wasn’t a choice for me; it wasn’t in my heart to do that. So when I heard the news this morning, it struck close to home for me.”

A few feet away, members of the Ohio delegation were finishing up business, and I asked Patricia Murray, a delegate from Cincinnati, what she thought. “I don’t even think this is an issue,” she told me. “It’s a family issue. It’s a personal issue. The only reason it was made public was because of her mother.” Nearby, Ben Rose, a delegate from Lima, said that, “In every case where I heard delegates talk about this, the first thought was to the human nature of it.”

Earlier in the day, just after I heard the news, I called Marlys Popma, the well-known Iowa evangelical leader who is now the head of evangelical outreach for the McCain campaign. Like Sue Sharkey from Colorado, Popma had a story to tell. It turns out she had had a child out of wedlock nearly 30 years ago, and it changed her life. “It was my crisis pregnancy that brought me into the movement,” Popma told me. “My reaction is that this shows that the governor’s family is just like so many families. That’s how my first child came into the world, and I’m just thrilled that [Bristol Palin] is choosing to give this child life.”

I asked Popma what she thought the larger reaction among evangelicals will be. “Their reaction is going to be exactly as mine,” she told me. “There hasn’t been one evangelical family that hasn’t gone through some sort of situation. Many of us are in this movement because of something that has happened in our lives.”

As for now, at least, evangelicals seem to be completely on Palin’s side. And McCain’s. This is a group that has been skeptical of McCain in the past. Now, it’s probably fair to say that he has never been more popular among evangelicals than he is at this moment. Whether that will last, or whether Palin will cost McCain support among other voters, is not yet clear. But within the confines of the Republican Convention, McCain’s surprising choice of Palin — and the equally surprising news about her family — is paying off.

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