She is now perhaps the most debated woman in politics, but in August 2008 when she was announced as John McCain’s vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin was simply an unknown. TIME’s cover story focused more on Palin’s past than her smarts and readiness for the role, but it as the latter subject that would soon become the topic of harsh criticism. Palin was quickly blasted in the media for being ill-prepared for the duties of the vice presidency. But many Americans saw a kindred spirit in the Alaska governor — a mom and small-town girl who with her self-confidence and sass seemed to embody the independent spirit of the heartland. So as TIME wondered in August 2008, which was the real Palin?
In less than a week, the country has uncovered at least half a dozen new Palin personas that are competing to share top billing on her Wikipedia entry. She’s a beauty queen turned sportscaster turned governor. An anticorruption crusader in an oil-soaked, scandal-racked state capital. A caribou hunter who also showcases her femininity in fashion shoots.
Above all, Palin has proved to be a shrewd political operator who slyly fought her way upstream through her state’s cutthroat politics, someone more formidable than her image might suggest — and more than some in her own party are willing to acknowledge. For all her savvy, or maybe because of it, she has been launched headlong into the role of a lifetime, for which almost nothing could have prepared her.
Next John Edwards, 2004