PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania (AFP) — Barack Obama and John McCain were to hold rival rallies in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania Saturday as the race for the White House intensified with McCain's surprise pick of Alaska's little-known governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate.
Both campaigns were setting out on tours to introduce their vice-presidential picks to the US heartland: Obama in the wake of his rock-star reception at the Democratic convention and McCain ahead of officially accepting the Republican nomination on Thursday.
The question is how Palin, a 44-year-old with virtually no national political experience who has served less than two years as governor, will measure up against Democratic pick Joe Biden, the Democrats' vice presidential pick, who has spent his much of his 36-year senate career working on foreign policy.
Former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan called the McCain's choice the "biggest political gamble in American political history."
Tapping the self-described "hockey mom" to be the second woman in US history to join a major-party ticket for the presidency was seen as a blatant bid to win over disgruntled supporters of failed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
An avid hunter who opposes abortion, is pressing for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and has a son who will soon be deployed to Iraq, Palin is also favored by the party's conservative grassroots who have been wary of the more centrist McCain.
The influential hardline-conservative radio pundit Rush Limbaugh, once a rabid critic of McCain, called it "an inspired choice."
But while Palin's youth may offset concerns about McCain's age - he turned 72 Friday - it could also destroy one McCain's most powerful weapons against Obama in the run-up to the November 4 elections.
"It clearly makes it more difficult for McCain to criticize Obama's experience," said Professor Tom Baldino of Wilkes University, Pennsylvania.
Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton blasted the choice and highlighted Palin's lack of foreign policy credentials.
"Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency," Burton said in a statement Friday.
The Washington Post echoed the view Saturday, openly questioning Palin's qualifications.
"Her executive experience consists of less than two years as governor of her sparsely populated state, plus six years as mayor of Wasilla (pop. 8,471)," the newspaper pointed out in an editorial. "Above all, she has no record on foreign policy and national security -- including terrorism, which Mr. McCain posits as the top challenge facing America and the world."
The McCain campaign said Palin, as governor of oil-rich Alaska, has a deep knowledge of energy issues, a key issue for an electorate hammered by high fuel prices and other economic woes.
And they indicated that McCain had enough foreign policy experience to balance the ticket.
"She's going to learn national security at the foot of the master for the next four years, and most doctors think that he'll be around at least that long," Charlie Black, one of Mr. McCain's top advisers, told the New York Times.
Palin would also help McCain maintain his image as a maverick outsider: she gained popularity as a crusading rebel and whistle blower against corruption among fellow Alaskan Republicans.
McCain described Palin as "a running mate who can best help me shake up Washington and make it work again" and "a devoted wife and mother of five" who "understands the problems, the hopes, the values of working people."
But Kim Gandy of the National Organization for Women called McCain's choosing Palin "a cynical effort to appeal to disappointed Hillary Clinton voters and get them to vote, ultimately, against their own self-interest."
Voters will get a better look at Palin as she and McCain tour Pennsylvania, Missouri and Ohio in the days leading up to the September 1-4 Republican convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.
In a series of stops on the drive from Dayton Friday, Palin appeared confident but not yet comfortable with her running mate, who she had only met once before he offered her the vice presidential nomination.
She will next appear with McCain at a 6:00 pm (2300 GMT) rally in Washington, Pennsylvania.
Obama and Biden, who have spent several years working together in the senate, are set to mount a stage 50 miles away in the town of Beaver, Pennsylvania just an hour and a half later.
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