DAYTON, Ohio (Reuters) - Republican John McCain made a surprise choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate on Friday, adding a political unknown to the presidential ticket who could help him appeal to women voters.
Palin, 44, a self-described “hockey mom,” is a conservative first-term governor of Alaska with strong anti-abortion views, a record of reform and fiscal conservatism and an outsider’s perspective on Washington.
“She’s exactly who I need. She’s exactly who this country needs to help me fight the same old Washington politics of me first and country second,” McCain told a roaring crowd of 15,000 supporters in Dayton, Ohio.
Palin was chosen over a list of more experienced and better known contenders as the Arizona senator grabbed the political spotlight away from Democratic rival Barack Obama one day after Obama accepted his party’s presidential nomination.
“Senator, I am honored to be chosen as your running mate. I will be honored to serve next to the next president of the United States,” Palin said, joined on stage by her husband and five children ranging in age from 18 years to five months.
“As governor, I’ve stood up to the old politics as usual,” she said. “This is a moment when principle and political independence matter.”
McCain and Palin will face Obama and his No. 2, Joe Biden, in the November 4 presidential election.
The pick followed days of speculation about McCain’s choice, with most of the better-known contenders like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty slowly eliminated over the last 24 hours.
Palin, former mayor of the town of Wasilla, is almost unknown nationally. That could hurt McCain’s argument that Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, is too inexperienced to handle the White House.
But she could help him appeal to disaffected supporters of Democrat Hillary Clinton, who lost a bruising primary to Obama.
Palin is an avid sportswoman who would bring youth and vitality to the ticket. McCain turns 72 on Friday and would be the oldest person to take office for a first term in the White House if elected.
‘A HEARTBEAT AWAY’
“Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency,” said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton.
“Governor Palin shares John McCain’s commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade, the agenda of Big Oil and continuing George Bush’s failed economic policies -- that’s not the change we need, it’s just more of the same,” he said. Roe v. Wade was a landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that overturned many state and federal laws against abortion.
In his acceptance speech on Thursday, Obama directly attacked McCain and linked him to the Republican policies of President George W. Bush, saying he would reverse eight years of economic failure and restore the standing of the United States in the world.
Palin built a reputation as a reformer in a state that recently has been hit with corruption scandals. Elected in 2006, she is Alaska’s first woman governor.
“He is also clearly trying to attract Clinton supporters who want to see a female in the VP’s office,” said Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University in Iowa. “On the down side there is no way in the world she passes the commander-in-chief test.”
If elected, Palin would be the first woman U.S. vice president, adding another historic element to a presidential race that has been filled with firsts. Obama, 47, is the first black nominee of a major U.S. political party.
The choice of a vice president rarely has a major impact on the presidential race. Palin will meet Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a debate in October.
McCain and Republicans open their national convention on Monday, following Obama’s acceptance speech on Thursday before 75,000 flag-waving supporters at Denver’s football stadium.
In his speech, Obama said McCain was out of touch with the day-to-day concerns of Americans and had been “anything but independent” on key issues like the economy, health care and education.
Obama, running neck-and-neck with McCain in polls, had been urged by some Democrats to take a tougher line against his rival.
“Senator McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush was right more than 90 percent of the time?” Obama asked, citing McCain’s voting record in the U.S. Senate.
The televised acceptance speech gave Obama his biggest national audience until he meets McCain in late September in the first of three debates.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland, writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Frances Kerry