Steve Chapman

The last few days have offered some startling revelations about a running mate -- Sarah Palin's running mate. For months, Republicans have been asking the ominous question: How well do we know Barack Obama? The GOP nominee's vice presidential choice raises another one: How well do we know John McCain?

McCain's central message all along has been twofold. The first is that he would keep us safe in a scary, hostile world. The second is that he would always do what is right for the country he loves, no matter what the political or personal cost.

The first theme is a favorite of Republican presidents, but McCain's background has made it especially potent for him. During the Republican primaries, he made a point of noting that he, unlike his rivals, had "a military background and experience in these issues." His five years as a prisoner of war also dramatize the second theme, highlighting his patriotic devotion.

Both of those points are hard for Barack Obama to match. He's never worn the uniform; his father was a Muslim; he had a radical pastor who damned America. Obama's critics paint him as a mystery man who carries profound risks. Voting for him, we are told, would be a dangerous leap of faith.

McCain, by contrast, has gotten where he is because he's a familiar, well-seasoned quantity. He has been in public office for more than three decades, leaving an extensive record. Love him or hate him, we assumed, we knew what we were getting.

The biggest problem with Palin is not that she's inexperienced or has a wayward daughter or recently admitted ignorance of what the vice president does. It's that she's a human torpedo aimed at McCain's strongest attributes.

You don't come across as the prudent option when you propose to put an untested neophyte in line for the most powerful job on earth. Or when you choose a running mate you barely know without investigating her to within an inch of her life. Or when you cheerfully contemplate turning over the nuclear codes to someone with no apparent knowledge of or interest in national security matters. The safe guy suddenly looks like Evel Knievel.

The McCain campaign says it knew about the pregnant daughter before Palin was chosen. But the vetting process was clearly far from exhaustive. Several prominent Alaska politicians, including the one directing an ethics investigation of her, said they never got a call. The senator and his subordinates didn't do everything they could to learn everything they needed to know about Palin.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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