September 2, 2008

Source: The Seatle Times
ST. PAUL, Minn. — The announcement Monday by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her husband that their unmarried 17-year-old daughter is pregnant raised new questions about how thoroughly John McCain investigated the background of his vice-presidential pick.

Whether the 72-year-old McCain’s selection of 44-year-old Palin as his running mate was carefully considered or impulsive is a matter of growing interest.

Stoking the notion of a rushed examination, a timeline issued by the campaign indicated that McCain initially met Palin in February, then held one phone conversation with her last week before inviting her to Arizona, where he met with her a second time and offered her the job.

Raising additional questions was a report that Palin’s husband, Todd, had been arrested in 1986, when he was 22, for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Although the Palins made their announcement in response to Internet rumors about their daughter’s pregnancy, McCain advisers said that he knew about the pregnancy before he settled on Palin, and said that Palin had been thoroughly vetted.

In Alaska, however, there’s little evidence of a thorough vetting process.

The former U.S. attorney for Alaska, Wev Shea, who enthusiastically recommended Palin back in March, said he was never contacted with any follow-up questions.

Chris Coleman, one of Palin’s next-door neighbors, said that no one representing McCain spoke to him about Palin. Another neighbor also was never contacted, he said Monday.

Republican Gail Phillips, a former speaker of the Alaska House, said that she was shocked by McCain’s selection of Palin and told her husband, Walt, “This can’t be happening because his advance team didn’t come to Alaska to check her out.” “We’re not a very big state,” Phillips said. “People I talk to would’ve heard something.”

Walt Monegan, the commissioner of public safety whom Palin fired in July, said that no one from the McCain campaign contacted him, either. His firing is now the subject of a special legislative investigation into whether Palin or members of her administration improperly interfered with the running of his department by pushing for dismissal of a state trooper involved in a divorce and custody battle with Palin’s sister.

Palin now has a private lawyer representing her and others in the governor’s office in the investigation. It wasn’t immediately clear who hired and who is paying for Thomas Van Flein.

The FBI declined to say whether it conducted a full-field investigation of Palin’s background before McCain tapped her as his running mate.

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Previous vice-presidential picks — even those with long records in national politics — have come under much closer scrutiny. In 2000, Democratic nominee Al Gore picked Joe Lieberman after a vetting process that lasted about 10 months.

Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, was asked Monday as he walked through the Xcel Center in St. Paul if he was satisfied with Palin’s vetting. “I’m not gonna get into that,” he said.

Mark Salter, McCain’s closest adviser, said in an e-mail message that Palin had been interviewed by Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., a veteran Washington lawyer, as well as by other lawyers who worked for Culvahouse.

Reports on each candidate — 40-some pages and single spaced — were reviewed by McCain, Schmidt, Davis, and top advisers Salter and Charlie Black.

Palin then was sent a personal data questionnaire with 70 “very intrusive” questions, Culvahouse said. She also was asked to submit a number of years of federal and state tax returns.

Culvahouse then conducted a nearly three-hour interview. He said the first thing Palin volunteered was that her daughter was pregnant, and she also quickly disclosed her husband’s two-decade-old DUI arrest.

Culvahouse said he asked follow-up questions, and “spent a lot of time with her lawyer” on the matter.

“We came out of it knowing all that we could know at the time,” he said.

McCain’s team hit back at reporters’ questions about the vetting process.

“It’s a private family matter. Life happens in families,” Schmidt said. “If people try to politicize this, the American people will be appalled by it. The fact is that the American people, who are decent people, don’t appreciate intrusions into the private space of good families.”

But some Republicans remained nervous about the party’s ticket, worrying about the potential for more surprises in the days ahead. “Palin’s daughter’s pregnancy is probably much ado about nothing — I think,” one GOP strategist said. “If there’s more, it will raise questions about the whole vetting process because she’s such an unknown.”

Another McCain loyalist said he doubts the controversy will last. “It came out in the vetting, and if that’s true, then the vetting worked,” he said. “If that’s not true, then I would have concerns.”

But McCain supporters are encouraged that leaders of the Christian right are rallying behind Palin and her family.

“Fortunately, Bristol is following her mother and father’s example of choosing life in the midst of a difficult situation,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. However, Sherry Whistine, a Republican conservative blogger from Palin’s home area of Wasilla, said that she can’t believe how Palin could accept the nomination knowing that doing so would shine a spotlight on her daughter.

“What kind of woman, knowing all of this, knowing this is happening, would put her children in the position where the whole world, the whole nation, is going to see the uglies?” she said.

Like so many here, Ted Boyatt, 20, a delegate from Maryville, Tenn., seemed stunned by Palin’s announcement and its awkward timing. “It seems like the whole script has just been knocked out of balance,” he said.

The Palins said that Bristol, who was named for Bristol Bay, the salmon fishery, would marry a man they identified only as Levi.

“Bristol and the young man she will marry are going to realize very quickly the difficulties of raising a child, which is why they will have the love and support of our entire family,” the statement said.

Palin and her husband eloped on Aug. 29, 1988, and their first son, Track, was born eight months later, a fact that Maria Comella of the McCain campaign, declined to elaborate on. “They were high-school sweethearts who got married and ended up having five beautiful children,” Comella said.

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