Alter: Why Sarah Palin Is Likely to Belly-Flop

Happy birthday, Johnny Mac! You're 72 now, a cancer survivor and a presidential candidate who has said that the most important criterion for picking a vice president is whether he or she could immediately step in if something happened to the president. Your campaign against Barack Obama is based on the simple idea that he is unready to be president. So you've picked a running mate who a year and a half ago was the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a town of about 7,000 people. You've selected a potential leader of the free world who knows little or nothing about the major issues of the day beyond energy. Oh, and she's being probed in her state for abuse of power.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's debut in Dayton, Ohio, on Friday was good political theater. She delivered a pitch-perfect speech with a panache that suggests she could be a natural on the national stage. Maybe Palin is a north-country version of Obama—an autodidact who, while juggling so many other things, managed to educate herself on the deductibility of health-care benefits and the constellation of forces in the Sunni Triangle. She speaks cogently and convincingly on television, which is a huge advantage. It's not hard to see why she appealed to McCain: her middle-class roots; her older son headed for Iraq with the U.S. Army; her (recent) opposition to the earmarked "bridge to nowhere." If camera-ready Palin helps McCain close the gender gap and win in November, she'll be history's hockey mom.

But there's a reason that rookies rarely score hat tricks. It's not her lack of name recognition; America loves a fresh face, especially one that's a cross between a Fox anchor and a character on "Northern Exposure," the old TV show about an Alaska town roughly the size of Wasilla. The problem is that politics, like all professions, isn't as easy as it looks. Palin's odds of emerging unscathed are slim. In fact, she's been all but set up for failure, which is yet another reason McCain's choice may prove to be irresponsible.

"What is it exactly that the vice president does all day?" Palin offhandedly asked CNBC anchor Larry Kudlow in July. Kudlow explained that the job has become more important in recent years. Palin knows the energy crisis well, even if her claim on "Charlie Rose" that Alaska's untapped resources can significantly ease American dependence on foreign oil is unsupported by the facts. But what does she know about Iranian nukes, the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the future of entitlement programs? And that's just a few of the 20 or so national issues on which she will be expected to show basic competence. The McCain camp will have to either let her wing it based on a few briefing memos (highly risky) or prevent her from taking questions from reporters (a confession that she's unprepared). Either way, she's likely to belly-flop at a time when McCain can least afford it.

Even on energy, Palin has her work cut out for her. First she has to convince McCain to reverse himself and support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Her much-repeated sound bite that ANWR is only the size of the Los Angeles airport and thus drilling there is not environmentally destructive sounds good, but won't do much to counter the argument Obama made in his acceptance speech, which is that drilling is only a "stopgap" measure. Palin, who supported Steve Forbes's run in 1996, will benefit from very low expectations in her debate with Joe Biden, but she's going to have to have a photographic memory for new information to avoid getting creamed.

Governors often run for president, but only after many months of prep work on what they might confront in the White House. (The last governor nominated for vice president was Spiro Agnew in 1968.) Obama's résumé may be short but he now has plenty of practice sparring in the heavyweight division. Palin is more exposed. Even veep candidates with extensive Washington experience like Geraldine Ferraro and Dan Quayle were nonetheless grilled on policy and proved a drag on the ticket when they looked unpresidential.

I covered Ferraro in 1984 for NEWSWEEK. The day Walter Mondale chose her as the first woman candidate for high office was exciting and historic. But the Queens congresswoman was quickly swamped by tough questions (especially from Ted Koppel) about her readiness, and by ethical queries about her husband, a real-estate developer. A lengthy news conference she held to answer the mounting questions did not go well.

Reporters are already winging their way to Alaska to probe what Alaskans call "Troopergate," a story concerning former state trooper Mike Wooten, who is engaged in a nasty custody fight with Palin's sister. Alaska's former public-safety commissioner Walt Monegan says he resisted pressure from Palin's office to fire Wooten, and was later dismissed by the governor as a result. Now the state legislature has appointed a special counsel, Steve Branchflower, to probe the mess. Branchflower has opened a tip line for Alaskans who might know if the governor and possible next vice president of the United States abused her power.

Palin's claim that she had "nothing to do" with the firing will hardly go unchallenged. Because the media loves scandal of any kind, especially one involving the potential use of public power to settle private family scores, this story could prove a distraction to the McCain campaign all fall.

It's hard to know how many women will flock to the GOP ticket because of Palin, who opposes abortion even in the case of rape or incest. In 1984 Ronald Reagan carried 56 percent of female voters, despite Ferraro's candidacy on the Democratic side. Some women already feel patronized by the choice. Sure it's possible that Palin is so talented that she will prove to be the face of the GOP's future. More likely, this "Hail Sarah" pass won't do much to help John McCain get into the end zone. He'll win or lose for other reasons.

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