At first glance, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin comes across as a tough, independent-minded budget cutter and ethics crusader, a whistle-blower who has not been afraid to take on her own party leaders and the oil industry.
That is, at least, the Palin that the McCain campaign wants people to see.
But while Palin's political rise is compelling, her 20-month tenure in office tells a more complicated story. Although many residents in Juneau are quick to call Palin inexperienced in terms of policy and governing, more than a few would say that she has good political instincts and excellent timing.
She ran against the least popular governor in Alaska history, Frank Murkowski. Her campaign motto was simply that she was not him.
It worked, and it was her strategy for her first year in office. She undid things he had done, from putting his jet on eBay to repealing a surtax he put on tires. Then, she took on his unfinished business, including the still yet-to-be built natural gas pipeline and the fight to raise oil taxes, a favorite topic of the Democrats in the Legislature.
An economist and columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, Gregg Erickson, says Palin has made her mark by taking on industry.
"Some might say [the] Legislature played a big role and that would be true," he said. "But I think Alaskans were very pleased that they finally got a governor that would lead this state out from its 27, 28 years of dominance by the oil industry."
But Erickson's praise stops there. He says Palin's single-minded focus on oil taxes and the gas pipeline has left little time for much else.
He says a number of disgruntled legislators say Palin and her staff have little interest in mundane tasks such as getting control of Medicaid spending.
"There's very few areas where she had any policy initiatives, and there are no areas that I can think of where any of those initiatives were carried to fruition," he said.
Palin's Accomplishments As Alaska Governor
There is no laundry list of bills passed these 20 months, and Palin is not known as a consensus builder. In fact, she's more willing to alienate people to get things done. In that sense, she is a maverick.
One of her biggest detractors is Republican Senate Leader Lyda Green, who has been unabashed about saying that Palin is not ready for prime time. Instead of working with Green, Palin allied herself with House Minority Leader Beth Kertula to advance the pipeline and oil tax legislation.
Kertula says that she gives Palin credit for working with Democrats. "She was willing listen to us, and she was willing to take our advice, and she had an excellent gas team in place," Kertula said. But, on the other issues, she says, Palin "has not been so good."
While Democrats like Kertula would like to see Palin spend more money on social programs, Republicans do not think she is serious about establishing fiscal discipline.
During her first round with the budget, she angered both parties in a veto message, saying "someone has to be the grown-up." Her most recent round of budget cuts was called inconsistent, as she approved projects in her hometown but vetoed similar projects in other towns as non-essential.
Rebecca Braun is the publisher and editor of the Alaska Budget Report.
"It's more that she's politically savvy than that she is a true-blue budget cutter," Braun said. "Of course, during her time in office we've had these unbelievable surpluses, so there's been zero pressure to actually cut the budget and make those decisions."
As for being a true reformer, years ago Palin did take on her own party when few would dare and risked her political career in the process. But the ethics bill that passed the Legislature this past year was more a reaction to the FBI-led corruption investigation than any effort led by Palin.
Indeed, Palin herself accepted money from Veco, the company at the center of the scandal.
Still, there is a new atmosphere in the state capital these days, and Palin's administration deserves credit.
Clark Gruening has been a lobbyist in Juneau for more than two decades. "There are fewer avenues to work on and less of the pay-to-play kind of thing," he said about Palin's work as governor.
Gruening says Palin has declared that she will not talk or meet with lobbyists in her office, and she has stuck to that rule. But he adds, with a smile, that this does not mean she won't talk or meet with lobbyists elsewhere.
In sum, Palin's political instincts, good timing and swollen state coffers have ensured a relatively successful 20 months in office. And just as she was getting into trouble at home for allegedly using her position to remove a state trooper who was in a custody battle with her sister, she was tapped as McCain's running mate and whisked to the Republican convention.