By William Mckenzie
Sarah Palin has put the Republican ticket in play, giving it the energy John McCain lacked for the fall campaign. He needed a “wow” pick, and she gives him wow.
A self-described anti-abortion, Bible church-attending feminist, she connects culturally to white evangelical Republicans who weren’t sold on McCain. Plus, she could resonate with some carpool-driving, daytime-working, homework-helping mothers who support a woman’s right to an abortion, but who aren’t ideological.
And beyond the thorny abortion issue, they could see themselves in a 44-year-old professional woman and mother of five.
What’s unknown is how she will play among swing groups of religion-minded voters, particularly Democratic-leaning Catholics and Latino Protestants. Given her faith, Palin has a chance to help win some of these up-for-grabs voters. It depends upon the issues she chooses and her tone.
Rush Limbaugh, for one, was beside himself after her selection, exclaiming that she represents guns, babies and Jesus. I’d suggest she instead take a cue from the broader and softer Mike Huckabee.
During the GOP primaries, Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, married his cultural conservatism to a compassionate message about economic fairness, without the anger of culture warriors like Limbaugh.
Tone matters if the McCain campaign hopes to sway Catholics who preferred Hillary Clinton but who could vote Republican now. They oppose abortion, but they also worry about issues like economic fairness.
There’s a storied tradition of such voters, including Catholic Democrats who once backed Ronald Reagan. Yes, they believe abortion represents the taking of a life, but they also believe their faith commands them to work with the poor and to challenge a system they see as stacked against workers of the world.
They helped elect Robert Casey, an anti-abortion Democratic senator from Pennsylvania. Barack Obama smartly selected Joe Biden, a Pennsylvania-born Catholic and longtime Delaware senator, to help win their votes.
What’s interesting is that Palin, despite being a Republican from Alaska, could have an opening with them, too, as some of these Democratic leaners share her social conservatism.
The question is whether she can show enough compassion for their economic uncertainties. To my ear, her address to the GOP convention last week was too much hard-edged culture warrior to do that. But Matthew Wilson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor who studies Catholic voting patterns, believes she still could make a powerful connection if she steers toward economic fairness.
As to Latino Protestants, McCain has been slower than George W. Bush to mobilize them, even though many are culturally conservative. How will Palin relate to them? Her experience in Alaska and its suburbs is as far from the Latino experience as one can get.
Yet she also shares their cultural conservatism. And having once attended a Pentecostal church, she knows how to speak the language.
For many of us, it’s chilling to hear her talk about an Alaska pipeline being part of God’s will. But Pentecostals possess the evangelical sense of confidence about being on a mission from God. They just amp it up, as Darrell Bock of the evangelical Dallas Theological Seminary told me.
With Latino Protestants, she also needs to speak genuinely about economic fairness. Hispanic pastors I’ve interviewed describe this as a big issue for their flocks.
This is all about winning swing voters, the big uncertainty in the race.
What we do know is that Palin’s religious journey mirrors many Americans. Baptized a Catholic, she joined an Assemblies of God church and then went to an evangelical Bible church. A Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey this summer shows we increasingly are a blend of different religious traditions.
What we don’t know is whether she has the ability to take her religious views and speak to more than religious conservatives.
X William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune.