The inside story: How McCain picked Palin

In the days after her selection, Palin’s vetting became a major question, with top officials insisting that nothing of significance had surfaced after her selection. Although they didn’t learn of her daughter’s pregnancy until she was about to meet McCain, they agreed that it should not be disqualifying. The appearance of haste in choosing her fueled speculation that McCain had acted impulsively. But if there was a breakdown, it appears not to have been in the review but rather in a decision made without a deeper understanding of whether Palin would be judged ready to sit a heartbeat away from the presidency. As one person close to the campaign put it, Palin may have received a thorough legal vetting, but what she didn’t receive was a thorough political vetting. Those closest to the decision said that in the weeks before the choice they discussed with McCain the pros and cons of picking Palin as much as they talked about other finalists. They believed the potential reward outweighed the risk…

Now they talked for about an hour down by the creek and were joined toward the end by Cindy McCain. That was the extent of McCain’s personal interview with the woman he was about to thrust into the national spotlight. When they finished their conversation, McCain took a short walk with Cindy. He then huddled with Schmidt and Salter, who by prior arrangement argued the case for and against her. Schmidt restated his case: McCain needed to scramble the race; Palin’s profile would reestablish his reform image; Pawlenty was credible and acceptable, but once the convention was over he would disappear. Salter argued that Palin was untested nationally and a high risk. He also said that, for all the talk about “country first” in his campaign, McCain could be accused of making a political choice designed only to help him win the election, not enhance his ability to govern. Pawlenty, he argued, was solid, had an attractive biography, and could talk to both the Republican base and swing voters.

Their conversation over, McCain returned to the deck of his cabin and offered Palin the job. After pictures were taken, McCain and Cindy left. He would see his running mate again the next morning in Dayton, Ohio…

At McCain headquarters in Virginia, the communications team was caught off guard. No one had given members the advance word that they needed to prepare background material. Inundated by media calls trying to confirm the choice, they were helpless, some of them not sure how to pronounce her name. One staffer was frantically trying to download information about Palin when the overloaded Alaska state government Web site crashed. Unable to get answers to basic questions, the campaign gave out inaccurate information, telling one news organization she had been to Iraq when she had only been near the border on a visit to Kuwait. “It was horrific,” one campaign official said. “It was a disaster. It was a huge disaster.”