The Alaska delegation reportedly underwent media training Sunday night. It shows. The group entered the convention floor Tuesday afternoon wearing neon-orange reflective vests and white hard hats with "Drill Here" painted on the sides. But they might as well have read, "Don’t Ask Us About Bristol."
Ever since John McCain picked Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, the Alaska delegation has been getting Alaskan-sized levels of attention. Every other person in their convention floor section is carrying either a camera or a notepad. Reporters kneel next to every aisle seat, collecting quotes. These folks aren’t used to being fawned over by Judy Woodruff.
The delegates were full of praise for the vice presidential nominee, of course. They all know her. In fact, everybody knows everybody. "It’s a small state," says delegate Mead Treadwell of Anchorage.
I asked about Palin’s reversal on the infamous $400 million "Bridge to Nowhere." June Burkhart, a delegate from Willow , says it’s overblown. "We all supported it initially," Burkhart explains. That is, until they realized it was going to jeopardize the tourist industry.
But, anyway: Drilling. Pete Higgins, a big fellow with a goatee, has pasted a photo of the Alaskan tundra across the back of his vest. It shows caribou grazing in front of an oil refinery. The message: Drilling for oil doesn’t hurt wildlife. "There were 2,600 caribou back in 1972," Higgins explains. "Today there’s over 30,000." If anything, he says, pipelines protect caribou. The 12-foot-high pipelines provide heat for the caribou to huddle under, and shade. Some caribou even birth calves under the pipeline. Plus, predators don’t like to come near the refinery. So, really, it’s a safe haven.
I ask him why the caribou in the photo look all skinny and mangy. "They’re shedding," he says.
Higgins actually worked on oil pipelines in the late '70s. Now he’s a dentist. I ask him whether that was a big career change. "Not really," he says, "I’m still drilling." (He admits he’s used that one before.)
This is Higgins’ first convention, and so far he has few complaints. Well, maybe one. Their governor is the vice presidential nominee, he points out. "Shouldn’t we be up front?" Instead, they’re situated in the back right corner. (Next to Oklahoma . Shudder.)
But the "Alaska doesn’t get enough respect" argument doesn’t quite work. They’re the belles of the ball. Other delegates are passing by, shaking hands. "You must be thrilled!" exclaims one. Others ask to exchange state pins. Treadwell offers an Oklahoma delegate a pin of Alaska’s state flower, the forget-me-not. Alaskans sent packages of forget-me-nots to members of Congress in 1959, he explains, to remind them to vote for the state’s accession to the union. Maybe that was Palin’s secret, too.
I ask Treadwell what he makes of claims that Palin isn’t a serious choice. "Ask Exxon if she’s serious," he says. "Ask ConocoPhillips if she’s serious," he says, referring to her battles with the oil companies over drilling leases. He reminds me that Alaska is a border state. It trades with Russia and Canada. It’s the site of a major U.S. missile defense system. People forget this stuff, he says.
The delegates dismiss concerns that Palin is inexperienced. "I say, who’s ready?" Higgins says. "No one’s ever ready. Half the senators in the Senate aren’t ready. It’s about how fast can you learn." Treadwell emphasizes Palin’s executive experience—all 19 months of it—compared with Barack Obama’s.
Speaking of executive experience, Higgins tells me he’s president of the Alaskan Dental Society, which boasts 256 members. He points to the stage. "I’ll be up there in four years."