Politico: McCain staffers starting to rally to Palin's defense; Update: Biegun debunks NAFTA, Africa smears

Better late than never. Nothing yet from Steve Schmidt, but foreign policy guru Steve Biegun and spokesman Tracy Schmitt — among others — are on the case.

That she remains a player and may be the party’s nominee in four years would make it smart politics for Republican staffers to praise her in print. But those who went on the record suggest that they were doing so out of genuine affection for Palin and a sense that the image of her coming out of the election – that of a self-absorbed conniver — was not indicative of the person they knew.

“I’m appalled by it because Sarah Palin was one of nicest people I have ever had the chance to work with,” says Biegun, a former Bush NSC aide. “I’ve worked in Washington for 20 years, on the Hill, in the White House and in the private sector, and she ranks at the highest levels of decency, kindness and graciousness of anybody I’ve ever worked with.”…

“Gov. Palin was a breath of fresh air, particularly for those of us who’ve been living in the Washington bubble,” said Tracey Schmitt, the vice presidential nominee’s traveling spokeswoman and a veteran of the RNC and both Bush campaigns. “Because she is a working mom, she brought a real sense of perspective to the campaign trail, which was important.”…

Two other McCain aides who were pressed unexpectedly into Palin duty also have only positive things to say about her now

“One of the great developments of this campaign is the addition of Sarah Palin as a powerful and energetic new voice in American public life,” said Taylor Griffin, a McCain press aide who had been focusing on economic issues until he was dispatched to Alaska in late August. “She’s smart, insightful, and has an uncanny ability to ask the right questions.”

Biegun is the one who approved the prank call from “Sarkozy” and was, apparently, quite graciously absolved for it by the ‘Cuda afterwards.

Here’s more on her diva-ness or lack thereof from Greta’s show last night. Exit question: Romney likes to refer (awkwardly) to conservatism as a three-legged stool of “strong military, strong economy and strong family.” Palin’s cornered the market on the last one, but that’s the least important insofar as Obama’s first term will be defined by how well he handles the first two. If the economy comes back, Afghanistan improves, and he keeps the bomb out of Iran’s hands, no one will beat him in 2012. If, god help us, the economy’s still in the toilet and foreign policy is a shambles, we’ll run on that. Either way, social conservatism won’t matter much except to the extent that it usually does, as a basic litmus test to make sure the base turns out. In which case, what’s the argument for Palin, who’s young enough to wait and run in 2016, 2020, or even, conceivably, in 2032, when she’d still be younger than Maverick was this year? Newt, on the other hand…

Update: More from Biegun via Lowry at the Corner:

He says there’s no way she didn’t know Africa was a continent, and whoever is saying she didn’t must be distorting “a fumble of words.” He talked to her about all manner of issues relating to Africa, from failed states to the Sudan. She was aware from the beginning of the conflict in Darfur, which is followed closely in evangelical churches, and was aware of Clinton’s AIDS initiative. That basically makes it impossible that she thought all of Africa was a country.

On not knowing what countries are in NAFTA, Biegun was part of the conversation that led to that accusation and it convinces him “somebody is acting with a high degree of maliciousness.” He was briefing Palin before a Univision interview, and talking to her about trade issues. He rolled through NAFTA, CAFTA, and the Colombia FTA. As he talked, people were coming in and out of the room, handing Palin things, etc. She was distracted from what Biegun was saying, and said, roughly, “Ok, who’s in NAFTA, what the deal with CAFTA, what’s up the FTA?”—her way, Biegun says, of saying “rack them and stack them,” begin again from the start. “Somebody is taking a conversation and twisting it maliciously,” he says.