The plan for Sarah Palin—rock-star Republican—was to do a series of swing-state events with John McCain, record the campaign's regular weekend radio address and then go home. "We kind of shanghaied her out of Alaska," Steve Schmidt, the McCain-Palin campaign manager, told me. "She needs to go back for a few days." There are personal reasons. Her son is shipping off for Iraq. With a newborn of her own, a pregnant daughter and a state to run, "Sarah Barracuda" has to get her affairs in order.
But there are political reasons, too. She needs time to study McCain's views and bone up on foreign policy before debating Joe Biden. At home she can more easily avoid interrogation by GOP enemy No. 1, the media. And by hunkering down in Alaska, she's also less visible to Barack Obama's campaign and its allies. The moose hunter of the North, Palin is now the hunted one.
She's an elusive target. Her home state is a tougher political racetrack than Lower 48 pundits appreciate, and she has a respectable approval rating there. GOP delegates in St. Paul fell in love with her, and they form a bulwark to protect her if she trips up. Her stage skills are obvious, her charisma electric, her freshness an advantage. She delivered her barb-filled acceptance speech with what David Axelrod, Obama's campaign manager, told me was "snide efficiency." And as a woman and the mother of five, Palin is an opponent whom male rivals need to be careful about attacking.
Still, Democrats dare not issue Palin a pass—she's too dangerous a foe. Normally vice presidential candidates fade into the background. Nobody is expecting that with Palin; indeed, her newfound celebrity has made even Obama look dull. The usual rule is that voters don't trust attacks from people they don't know, but Palin is turning the adage on its head. Democrats are determined to attack her credibility, even if it gives her more visibility. "We've got to go after her, and fast," a top Democratic strategist, who asked for anonymity when discussing strategy, told me.
The first—and for Democrats, the most obvious—way to do so is on abortion. Palin doesn't believe in abortion even in cases of rape or incest. Pro-choice advocates concede her sincerity (she gave birth to a baby she knew was a Down-syndrome child), but are planning an extensive independent ad campaign aimed at women in swing states.
Democrats have been racing to put boots on the ground in Alaska—prospectors looking not for gold, but ammunition. Among the findings: as mayor, the proudly antitax, anti-spending Palin won a hike in the sales tax to pay for a sports complex—a facility that left Wasilla with a sizable debt. Running for governor, she supported the "Bridge to Nowhere" before, as governor, deciding it was a nonstarter. And as governor, she has used vetoes and budgets to cut spending on health, education and social services.
The real task of hunting Palin belongs to Biden, who will meet her in St. Louis for a 90-minute debate. The first-blush assumption that she would be overmatched faded the moment she finished speaking in St. Paul, and Biden's friends and advisers express concern about the delicacy of his task. Biden is as deeply informed on the issues as any member of the Senate, but he has a tendency to want to prove it at length. "He has to be careful not to come off as heavy-handed," a friend of Biden's, who's not authorized to speak publicly about the campaign, told me. "He has to push back, but in a careful way." The Democrats have to score against the hockey mom—without tripping on the ice.