Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Republican presidential nominee John McCain made history Friday when he appointed Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the first woman to run in the No. 2 spot on a GOP presidential ticket.

The surprise move elated self-identified conservative women, who comprise 32 percent of the female electorate, according to a national survey of likely voters conducted in June by the Polling Company, based in Washington, D.C. The margin of error was about 5 percent.

“Sarah Palin will make history as a vice presidential candidate, and not simply because she is a woman, but because she’s a woman of substance and character,” said Wendy Wright, head of Concerned Women for America, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

But Palin’s selection has also drawn criticism as the public got a closer look at her background. This week Palin hired a lawyer to help defend her against allegations that she improperly fired a state employee.

The revelation that her 17-year-old daughter is five months pregnant and intends to marry the father of her child soon has been presented as evidence of the family’s anti-abortion credentials.

And questions about Palin’s ability to juggle the demands of motherhood on top of national political office have also been raised in national media reports.

Republicans hope the historic appointment of Palin, a mother of five–including a four-month-old born after she became governor in 2006 and a son in the Army who is headed to Iraq–will help McCain win over women, who vote in higher numbers than men and have a disproportionate effect on the outcome of elections. In 2004, women comprised 54 percent of the electorate.

“We know from recent voting patterns that women are the key voting group that will elect the next president of the United States,” Cindy McCain says on her husband’s Web page for outreach to women. “So it is vitally important that Republican women get involved. . . You can’t win this election without the women’s vote.”

The gambit is particularly aimed at supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bid, 18 percent of whom said they would vote for McCain, according to a July survey of female voters released by New York cable company Lifetime Television Networks. Clinton has since thrown unequivocal support behind Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama, and pollsters and pundits predict her supporters will follow suit.

Palin’s Appeal Dismissed by Dems

Palin, they say, won’t get in the way of that.

And women’s rights advocates in particular say she is no Geraldine Ferraro, the former New York congresswoman who in 1984 became the first female vice presidential nominee for the Democrats and who is a strong advocate of women’s rights and legalized abortion.

At a Republican campaign rally in Washinton, Pa., Saturday Palin noted the Aug. 26 anniversary of women’s suffrage and paid tribute to the precedent-setting campaigns of Ferraro and Clinton. Palin said voters had an opportunity to shatter the same glass ceiling if they elected her.

A religious conservative, Palin opposes abortion, including in cases of rape or incest. She has also said that public schools should teach both creationism and evolution. McCain’s choice of Palin may help shore up support among religious conservatives who did not embrace him during the primaries.

Palin’s appointment “makes clear that John McCain is completely out of touch on the issues that matter to American women,” said Cecile Richards, president of the New York-based Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “The last thing women need is a president–and vice president–who are prepared to turn back the clock on women’s rights and repeal the protections of Roe v. Wade.”

McCain trails Obama by 12 points among women, according to an August survey released by EMILY’s List, the Washington political action committee that backs pro-choice Democratic female candidates.

That’s a wider gender gap than in the past two presidential elections at similar periods in the contest and a problem for the McCain campaign.

Nearly 1 in 5 women who voted for President Bush in 2004 are backing Obama this year, according to EMILY’s List. By comparison, about 1 in 10 women who voted for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004 are backing McCain this year.

Fewer Female Backers

Rita Hauser is one notable defector.

As a lifelong Republican who raised money for Bush in 2000 and served in the first term of his administration, Hauser might be expected to be among the thousands of women cheering inside Minneapolis’ Xcel Energy Center as the balloons drop on McCain.

But Hauser won’t be traveling to Minneapolis.

“I regard the new John McCain as Bush III,” said Hauser, a founder of Republicans for Obama, an online group that reaches out to Republicans who oppose McCain. Hauser soured on Bush after he invaded Iraq, and doesn’t like McCain because she believes he will continue the war and because of his opposition to abortion rights.

Democrats adopted a party platform last week that maintains strong support for abortion rights and emphasizes efforts to prevent unintended pregnancy. Republicans took a hard line on abortion in platform language approved on Aug. 26, urging a constitutional ban. GOP delegates are expected to approve the platform language this week.

Other notable GOP women in Republicans for Obama include Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Dwight Eishenhower; Dorothy Danforth Burlin, a Washington lawyer who is the daughter of former U.S. Sen. John Danforth of Missouri; and Harriet Stinson, the 82-year-old founder of Republicans for Choice, based in the Bay Area.

With Palin on the ballot, abortion rights advocates see further opportunity to erode McCain’s support among women.

Washington-based NARAL Pro-Choice America will target pro-choice Republican and unaffiliated women with that message. Pro-choice Republicans and unaffiliated voters make up 5 and 9 percent of the electorate, respectively, according to a survey conducted in June by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research on behalf of NARAL.

As part of its “Protect and Elect” program, NARAL is working to identify and persuade more than 1 million unaffiliated and Republican women in battleground states who support abortion rights to back Obama and other pro-choice candidates.

The hope is that this critical group of swing voters will shift to Obama after hearing the candidates’ records on abortion rights.

Siphoning Female Support

But Republicans think Palin will block some of that movement, and siphon some of Obama’s female support.

“Women voters are electrified, and Sarah is someone who is truly in sync with the way real American women think,” said President Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List in Arlington, Va., a political action committee that backs female candidates who oppose abortion. “She is a reform-minded woman who will give all Americans, born and unborn, the authentic leadership they deserve.”

The GOP is also reaching out to female voters with its Pink Elephants campaign, an online site that emphasizes issues of particular importance to women such as barriers to small business owners. Although dominated by men, small businesses are increasingly owned by women.

And the Republicans have tapped a handful of GOP women to speak at the convention, held from Sept. 1-4. Palin will give a major address on Sept. 3. But the lineup heavily favors male speakers, with 19 of the 26 scheduled speeches to be delivered by men, including the president.

Some prominent women will also rally the party faithful behind McCain.

On Sept. 3, Cindy McCain, who has championed efforts to alleviate global poverty, particularly among women, will speak. She has also focused removing land mines and helping children born with cleft palates.

Meg Whitman, national co-chair for McCain’s campaign and former president of online auction site eBay, and Carly Fiorina, former chair of computer company Hewlett Packard, will also address the convention.

Fiorina has served as a key surrogate on the campaign trail this year, but made the biggest headlines when she contradicted McCain’s position on contraception this summer, telling reporters she wanted insurance companies to cover contraception if they cover erectile dysfunction medication. McCain voted against that position in the Senate.

Other women with major speaking roles include first lady Laura Bush, who claims the podium Monday night; Gov. Linda Lingle of Hawaii, speaking on Tuesday; and California Secretary of State Rosario Marin, also speaking on Tuesday.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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