Vetting Palin, a Matter of Judgment?

Palin's revelations shed as much light on her as on McCain's vetting process.

Sept. 2, 2008 — -- John McCain secretly flew Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin from relative obscurity to a televised event in Dayton, Ohio, last week with one thing in mind: He wanted to surprise you.

The surprises, however, continued Monday when it was revealed that Palin's 17-year-old daughter was pregnant, that the governor had hired a lawyer to defend her in an ethics investigation, that she attended meetings of a fringe party calling for Alaskan independence and that her husband had been arrested for drunken driving.

You were surprised, sure. But what about McCain?

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The Arizona senator, just two days away from being the official Republican nominee, says he knew about it -- all of it, all along -- and picked her as his running mate anyway.

"My vetting process was completely thorough and I'm grateful for the results," McCain said today.

Depending on whom you ask, the way in which Palin was vetted and chosen represents either a stroke of maverick genius intended to stir things up, or was instead a last-minute decision representing a major lack in judgment.

McCain wants you to think the former. The revelations about Palin are coming out now because McCain wanted to make a splash with a surprise candidate and the only way to do that was to keep the process secret. The revelations about Palin would have come out sooner had McCain vetted her more publicly, but then the surprise would have been ruined, a former McCain staffer told

"Doing the process privately isn't the same as doing it in haste," said Dan Schnur, a former McCain aide who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

"If you take the campaign at their word, they wanted to keep things under wraps by keeping the vetting process to a limited number of people. The Obama camp was going out interviewing community leaders and state legislators, but McCain had a different strategy," he said.

State legislators were certainly kept out of the loop, said John Harris, speaker of the Alaskan House of Representatives and a Republican.

"No one from the McCain camp ever contacted me, and as far as I am aware, they did not speak with any member of the legislature. To be honest with you, I don't know what the process was, but it could not have been very exhaustive," Harris said.

He added, "If you're going to pick someone for that job, the second highest office in the land, you probably want to ask around and talk to the people who work with her."

The McCain camp is keeping many of the details of the vetting process secret, but despite having six months from the time he became the presumptive nominee, McCain reportedly met with Palin only once.

Members of the McCain camp arrived in Alaska just one day before Palin was announced as the GOP running mate and only had her fill out a 70-question standard survey, which included questions such as "Have you ever paid for sex?"

The McCain campaign told that the vetting team extensively explored the incident now being called "Troopergate." The state legislature is investigating whether Palin inappropriately fired the Alaskan Public Safety Commissioner for failing to dismiss her former brother-in-law, a state trooper, after a messy divorce from Palin's sister.

On Troopergate, the vetters spoke with attorneys involved in the case and asked for additional information from what was initially provided, sources said.

Late Tuesday, Palin's office announced that she asked the state's personnel board to review the allegations surrounding her firing of the former public safety commissioner

The campaign says A.B. Culvahouse, the primary vetter, knew about Troopergate, Palin's daughter's pregnancy, as well as husband Todd's DUI from the start.

Nothing has come as a surprise to the McCain campaign, according to sources from within.

By contrast to Palin's short vetting process, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack told that he was subjected to more than 20 hours of interviews and turned over 30 boxes of documents when vetted to be John Kerry's vice presidential pick in 2004.

"I had four separate interviews, two with [Kerry vetter] Jim Johnson of roughly three hours each. I was interviewed by five lawyers for over seven hours and turned over 30 boxes of materials. I met with John Kerry for 2½ hours just about my background, after he had spent months with my wife and me campaigning in Iowa," he said.

"The process was thorough. It was extensive. And it was substantially more than what John McCain did for Gov. Palin," he said.

Critics contend that the revelations about Palin suggest more about McCain's judgment than they do about Palin's character.

"In an ideal world, you don't want the vetting process to happen post facto," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and an adviser to Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry in their presidential campaigns.

"The real question is: Did McCain really know this would come out or is he just learning about it for the first time," he said.

McCain reportedly considered choosing Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent and former Democratic vice presidential nominee, to be his running mate. Given Lieberman's ties to the Democratic Party and abortion-rights position, McCain's advisers reportedly steered him away from that decision just days before he selected Palin.

"This is about decision-making and it is about judgment. This is the first time McCain had an opportunity to make a decision and it shows really poor judgment," Lehane said.

"Ultimately, we still have seven weeks to see how this plays out. Palin still has time to surprise everyone as much as McCain believes she will," he said. "There are debates and time on the trail [ahead]. Anything can happen."

ABC News' David Chalian and George Stephanopoulos contributed to this report.