Jennifer Granholm On Playing Palin

Tina Fey may be the most popular woman playing Sarah Palin these days. But she's not the most influential. That honor goes to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who has been tapped by Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden to stand in for Palin as he prepares for Thursday night's debate. Granholm is the first female to win her state's highest office; she was first elected in 2002, after serving four years as the state's first female attorney general.

Biden, Granholm and a handful of top campaign aides have spent the first half of this week at the Wilmington Sheraton Suites getting ready to rumble. One adviser in the room, who did not want to be named discussing campaign strategy, describes the prep sessions as more conversational than a formal mock debate might be. The group is focused on countering Palin's "prepared one-liner and quick jab" style. The campaign chose Granholm, this source says, "because she's a stellar debater who crushed Amway heir Dick Devos in her own debates in 2006 and herself had run in 2002 as an outsider and reformer."

Several days into her stint as Palin surrogate, Granholm spoke with NEWSWEEK's Sarah Kliff about the Alaska governor, what she and the politician she's playing have in common—and why debating a woman is different from debating a man. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What was your reaction to being asked to help prep Senator Biden?
Granholm: As you can imagine, it is such a great honor to be asked to participate in such a meaningful way in this all-important presidential election. I think the world of Joe Biden—and even more so after this experience … I'd met him before, certainly, but we had never worked together as intensely as we have over the past few days.

How have you been preparing him?
I'm not going to comment on the prep. It's still predebate, so I'm going to avoid those questions.

In general, do you think there ' s a difference between debating a male and a female opponent?
I do think, generally, it is more difficult for a man to debate a woman. I think that citizens have certain expectations still ingrained in them about how men and women should behave and comport themselves. And for both sides, there are pitfalls.

Such as?
As a man, you don't want to be perceived as beating up on a woman. As a woman, you don't want to be perceived as being shrill or unlikable or harsh. I think those are things that I'm sure both sides are keeping in mind.

How have you prepared for your own debates, mostly against male opponents?
I've really tried to show that I can throw a punch and could take a punch. You're in there playing in the big leagues, playing with the big boys; you've got to show that you can throw and land some punches of your own.

Do you think that women are judged differently when they run for office?
Women often use that Ann Richards line about how you have to be twice as good as a woman to be considered as good as a man … That sort of striving to be twice as good, either in your credentials or in your ability to govern, is very important for a woman, because there aren't that many of us yet in these positions. You have to really demonstrate that you are capable of taking this on.

What about how they run and present themselves?
I … hate to say it, but women running for office have to run like a man. The fact that you're a woman is obvious. You don't need to talk about it. I would encourage women to downplay the gender issue as much as you can. If you're married with kids, obviously the voters want to know about your family. But I never put the kids or the mom thing out on Front Street because they're electing an executive. Being a mom clearly demonstrates that you can relate to what people are feeling and experiencing, and you don't want to hide that because that's part of why you'd be an effective executive. But you're not running as a mom, you're running as an executive, and that's what [voters] want. Most people want responsible executives. You have to be pragmatic. They want someone who is a fiscal tightwad usually and able to make tough decisions. I think you have to convey to people that you are the best executive around.

Has gender played a role in your races?
[I'm always asked] how can she do it when she has kids at home. It happens to every woman that runs. You just sort of have to blow it off and say, 'I'm sure you ask that same question of my male counterpart who happens to have kids.' That's just part of the deal.

You first ran for statewide office in 1998, when you were elected attorney general in Michigan. Looking at this presidential election, has anything changed over the past decade?
The fact that Sarah Palin can openly talk about her family and have the kids be part of the campaign and all of that, which is something that men have done for a long time that women haven't really done. So I do think things have changed. It's not only accepted, but people are applauding that. When I first ran, the counsel was really, 'People don't want to know about all that.' I do think that's evolved. I think that has evolved with respect to people just accepting that women are good executives, can get things done.

In all seriousness, do you see any similarities between yourself and Governor Palin?
We're governors. There are the obvious comparisons: we have kids in sports, and I attend the parent-teacher conferences just like she does. So I think there are those similarities, certainly. We're both first female governors.

One Biden aide described both of you as outsiders and reformers.
That's true, too. I think women can do that because it's obvious if there's not been a woman in that position, you're going to bring a different perspective no matter what. So it's natural for women to take on that role as outsider.

You won your first statewide office a decade ago. Now, in 2008, where do you see things a decade from now?
I sure hope that ten years from now this issue about women in leadership is a nonissue because women will be in positions of authority in the same percentages they hold in the population. Hopefully this conversation just will not be necessary.

Do you think that ' s possible?
I certainly think it's possible. Ten years may be a little bit short as a timeline. Realistically, especially in the business world, it's been tough for women to break through. But it's true that, as Hillary Clinton said, the highest, hardest ceiling to break through is the presidency, and I certainly hope my daughters will be able to know that they can break through.