John McCain has spent most of his career in the Senate as a reformer willing to buck his own party for change, and ran on that theme during the primaries.  Time’s Michael Grunwald and Jay Newton-Small look at the options for McCain for running mates in staying true to that theme, and wonder why everyone seemed so shocked that he chose Sarah Palin to join his ticket.  In retrospect, Palin was the only candidate who filled all of McCain’s needs and didn’t dilute his message:

John McCain needs to persuade swing voters that he’s willing to take on the Republican establishment. He needs to persuade conservatives that he isn’t squishy about social issues. And he needs to close the gender gap. When you think about it, the real surprise about Sarah Palin’s selection as his running mate is that it’s such a surprise.

Palin may be an obscure 44-year-old first-term governor and mother of five from tiny Wasilla, Alaska, but in many ways she reinforces John McCain’s narrative of a maverick conservative crusader. She’s risen to power by battling corruption in her own state’s Republican establishment, exposing misconduct by the state GOP chairman and challenging the incumbent GOP governor. She’s a committed Christian who’s pro-life in practice as well as in theory; she recently gave birth to a son that she knew would have Down Syndrome.

But Palin can help McCain through biography as well as resume. She’ll be the first woman on a Republican ticket, which the campaign is surely hoping will appeal to Hillary Clinton voters and help reduce Barack Obama’s advantage among women. She’s a fresh face to counteract Obama’s message of change, and she’s about as far outside the Beltway as you can get. A child of the middle class with a friendly face and big hair, she is so affable that she once won Miss Congeniality in a beauty pageant. Her son is about to deploy to Iraq. She’s an ice fisherman, a moose hunter, a small business owner and a lifetime NRA member. And she shelved her state’s pork-laden Bridge to Nowhere that McCain has ridiculed on the trail.

McCain had several options open to him in this choice, but none of them would have addressed all of the points that Palin does.  Tim Pawlenty is a Washington outsider and an Everyman too, but fortunately Minnesota has not been plagued with official corruption, and Pawlenty has not had to crusade for massive reform.  He has governed as an effective and strong center-right leader, but doesn’t have the dynamism of Palin.  Mitt Romney, who would have been my first choice, has a proven track record in both private and public sectors of strong leadership, but his compromises as governor of Massachusetts already had people calling him a flip-flopper on key points like abortion.  Also, Romney isn’t exactly an Everyman; although he is a Washington outsider, his wealth hardly gives the impression of one.

Palin is, in a way, Pawlenty with a ferocious record of reform.  She went after her own party’s state chair and exposed his corruption at the Oil and Natural Gas Commission.  Palin defied Ted Stevens and Don Young in refusing to accept the Bridge to Nowhere and told them that Alaska can build its own bridges.  Otherwise, like Pawlenty, she enjoys and excels in sports, has a young family, and prior to entering the governor’s mansion lived in a solidly middle-class home.  Palin is, as Pawlenty often points out, more Sam’s Club than country club.

For a candidate who wants to run on a platform of change and reform, Palin fills the prescription perfectly.  Not only has she not spent more than three decades immersed in Washington politics, she already has a proven track record of attacking corruption wherever she finds it — even in her own party.  As Time says, Palin provides everything McCain needs in a partner for his mission of reform.