ATLANTA (Reuters) - Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin can draw on a tradition of popular support for politicians who portray themselves as anti-elitist when she debates her Democratic rival Joe Biden on Thursday.
But first she must persuade voters that she would be competent in the event she became president, according to analysts.
The Alaska governor delighted Republicans when John McCain named her as his running mate in August, describing herself as a “hockey Mom” who got into politics through the Parent Teacher’s Association at her children’s school.
“She has had a much more ordinary and commonplace life experience than you almost ever see as a national political candidate,” said Steven Greene, professor of political science at North Carolina State University.
Since then she has been criticized for her performance in recent television interviews in which she stumbled over questions of policy.
Her campaign argues that she is being hounded by the media, and McCain defended Palin this week with a sarcastic reference to an upscale section of the capital where people have little contact with the majority of voters.
“If there’s a Georgetown cocktail party person, who quote, calls himself a ‘conservative,’ and doesn’t like her, good luck,” McCain said, referring to the posh Washington neighborhood.
McCain will face Democratic candidate Barack Obama in November’s election.
For many Republicans, Palin’s core values are of much greater importance than her ability to answer policy questions.
“She stands for everything we stand for,” said Adrain White, 72, who grills chicken at a giant flea market in Canton, Texas, 50 miles east of Dallas.
Advisers could help Palin with foreign policy, while her Christian faith and membership of the influential National Rifle Association were vital credentials, White said.
But a growing proportion of voters question Palin’s readiness for the job and, as a result, the ability to connect with voters may not be enough, according to a Michael Dimmock, associate director of the Pew Research Center in Washington.
“Whether people think she is the salt of the earth is not going to overcome that fundamental concern about her ... qualification to take on the presidency,” he said.
“Warmth and likeability is a valuable trait and helps people communicate and be more persuasive but there is a minimum bar there,” Dimmock said.
Pew Research showed that the percentage of people who said Palin was qualified to step in as president has fallen since McCain first announced her as his running mate in late August.
Most striking was a finding that among Republican voters, perceptions of her qualification to become president fell during the month to 68 percent from 84 percent, suggesting that even among her own party reservations are starting to grow.
American voters have long been suspicious of politicians who appear to look down on them, even if they can demonstrate the experience necessary to run the office they are seeking.
President George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000, helped by the fact that voters judged him the more likable of the two men and the one voters would more like to have a beer with. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry was also portrayed as an elitist because he spoke French and liked wind-surfing.
During the Democratic primary campaign, Sen. Hillary Clinton pounced on a remark by Obama about how some voters were bitter and clung to guns and God to argue that he was an intellectual who was out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people.
“Americans put a high price on education and information but they still live in the real world,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
“The world is not viewed from an ivory tower. She (Palin) appeals to people who are out there every day rolling up their sleeves and working,” said Perkins, adding that he would vote for the Republican Party.
Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Texas, editing by Tom Brown