Can Palin also galvanize the U.S. left?

ST. PAUL (Reuters) - Sarah Palin is the magnet John McCain needs to attract religious and social conservatives who are not convinced he’s one of them.

But the little-known first-term Alaska governor is a big risk for McCain who had hoped to market his brand of maverick Republican politics to Democrats and moderates in his party.

McCain, who will accept his party’s presidential nomination for the November 4 election on Thursday at its national convention, ignited conservatives by picking as his running mate the staunchly anti-abortion Palin.

Despite his strong opposition to abortion rights, evangelicals have stayed lukewarm on McCain. He did not back a failed federal ban on gay marriage and broke with them on other social issues such as his support for stem cell research.

The first woman vice presidential candidate for the Republican party, Palin is a conservative Christian, avid hunter and has five children.

But her “God and guns” persona may also benefit Democrat Barack Obama and his running mate Joe Biden. Some experts say she will galvanize abortion rights groups and moderate faith groups in a way a more moderate selection for the Republican ticket might have avoided.

“Everybody pays attention to the mobilizing affect on the right but equally important is the mobilizing affect that Palin’s nomination makes for the left,” said Michael Lindsay, a political sociologist at Rice University in Houston who has written extensively on the U.S. evangelical movement.

“In many ways she is a much more mobilizing figure for both sides than John McCain because he is seen as much more of a moderate middle of the road political figure,” he said.

Obama’s campaign said that after her fiery speech on Wednesday night to the Republican National Convention, $8 million had poured into it from more than 130,000 donors and that it was on track to hit $10 million by the time McCain takes the stage Thursday night.

“Sarah Palin’s attacks have rallied our supporters in ways we never expected, and we fully expect John McCain’s attacks tonight to help us make our grassroots organization even stronger,” said Jen Psaki, a campaign spokesman.

Abortion rights activists said Palin gave them a target and threw McCain’s own views into sharp relief.

“We on the pro-choice side have had a hard time convincing pro-choice women that McCain is not their friend because he has a reputation of being a maverick,” said Sarah Stoesz, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.

“His selection of Palin has cast his position (against abortion rights) in a bright shining light that can’t be ignored,” she told Reuters.

Democrats have been concerned that women supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s failed bid for their party’s presidential nomination would desert Obama after he did not pick her as his No. 2.


Moderate religious groups and liberal activists have already started to pin the “religious extremism” label on Palin -- a label that wouldn’t stick to McCain.

They focus on her reported comments to a church in Alaska that U.S. soldiers in Iraq were “on a task that is from God,” on her strident opposition to abortion and other “culture war” issues which her candidacy has revived.

“Governor Palin appears out of touch with many people of faith, who are desperate for leaders who will move our country beyond the politics of division,” said James Salt, organizing director of the centrist Catholics United.

The moderate Interfaith Alliance said it was concerned by Palin’s “theocratic rhetoric.”

The specter of radical religious government or “theocracy” has been a staple of liberal commentary during the two terms of President George W. Bush, who owes his electoral success to conservative Christians.

Religious conservatives dismiss such concerns as scaremongering and they say are simply trying to uphold “traditional values.”

Hot button social issues such as opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage have propelled the Republican Party’s base of conservative white evangelical Protestants to the polls -- and have made the difference in some recent elections.

While high-profile initiatives seeking to ban gay marriage are on the ballots in California and Florida, such issues had been on the back burner in this presidential election, where economic issues and the Iraq war are prominent.

Perhaps mindful of her national television audience on Wednesday, Palin did not directly address these hot-button social issues. She instead electrified the party faithful with sharp jabs thrown at Obama.

But Democratic concerns about her brand of religion may be blunted by the fact that Obama himself often speaks about his faith and has very publicly tried to woo a share of this vote.

One in four U.S. adults count themselves as evangelical Christians and they take their faith and scripture very seriously. Even among other faith groups U.S. rates of belief and worship are much higher than European.

Additional reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst in Columbia, Pennsylvania, Editing by Jackie Frank