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Gov. Palin not in Alaska anymore

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Tom Donilon, the Washington lawyer who did the delegate-counting for Jimmy Carter in 1980, has a bit of practical wisdom that he has offered over the years to many other Democratic presidential hopefuls.

"There is no learning curve steeper than your first race for national office," Donilon has warned those who have turned to him for counsel, many of them people who have survived tough races in their home states. The difference between the scrutiny that applies to contenders for president or vice president and for any other offices is so much greater that shocks are inevitable, Donilon advises.

The Donilon maxim is now about to be tested - in spades - by Sarah Palin, the 44-year-old freshman governor of Alaska chosen by John McCain as his running mate.

Over the next few weeks, starting Wednesday evening with her acceptance speech, then with her first solo campaign trips, her first news conferences and interviews and finally her Oct. 2 debate with Democrat Joe Biden, Palin will be tested as never before. Nothing she has experienced in her hometown of Wasilla, where she was mayor, or her state capital of Juneau can really prepare her for this.

I know little of the dynamics of Alaskan politics. I have covered only one campaign in that state, a distant contest where another feisty woman Republican, Arliss Sturgulewski, lost the governorship to a transplanted North Carolinian named Steve Cowper. One of the striking things about that week, in which we traveled from Anchorage to Nome and back, was the fact that during the whole run, the candidates and I never ran into another reporter.

Now, Palin won't be able to blink without having a camera in her face. Her words and actions will be scrutinized as never before - as reporters and voters alike try to determine if she's ready to step into the presidency.

The Donilon rule is why the almost universal reaction among the professional politicians attending the Republican National Convention here to Palin's surprise selection has been one of extreme caution.

Bill Jones, the former California secretary of state and longtime McCain enthusiast, said that the choice of Palin stirred real enthusiasm in his state delegation, in part because "we're tired of being taunted by Democrats as the party of old white guys." Then he added: "She will either be a stunning advantage for John or a disaster."

The risk that Barack Obama avoided by selecting Biden, a two-time presidential candidate and longtime senator, is one that McCain accepted in hopes of strengthening his own reformer credentials.

His aides insist that Palin was not a last-minute choice but had been high on his prospect list since they met last February when she was in Washington for a meeting of the National Governors Association. They also assert that she had been "fully vetted."

But only three days after she was named came the disclosure that her 17-year-old unmarried daughter was five months pregnant. The family said the young woman planned to carry the pregnancy to term and to marry the father of her unborn child.

Inside the convention, the news was mostly accepted with equanimity. "People deal with family issues like this all the time," said Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota - a line I heard echoed from Connecticut to Idaho.

But the press secretary to a fellow-Republican governor said of Palin. "I hope there aren't more surprises to come."

There are likely to be more. When The Washington Post reported Tuesday that as mayor, Palin had employed an Anchorage-based lobbying firm that secured $27 million of earmarked projects for Wasilla, it was treated within the convention not as a contradiction of McCain's anti-spending stance, but as more evidence that she is an aggressive go-getter.

She is overwhelmingly popular with the delegates - even before they have heard from her. Hollis Rutledge, a marketing consultant from Brownsville, Texas, deep in the Rio Grande Valley, said that despite her geographic distance, Palin was "an excellent choice."

"My district went 72 percent for Hillary Clinton" in the Democratic primary, Rutledge said, "and we've got a lot of women who are looking for a candidate. Palin is very conservative. She knows oil and gas. She will go over very well with us."

The public will be passing judgment on Palin much more slowly. That verdict is yet to come.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at davidbroder@washpost.com.