United States - She burst onto the American political scene as Sarah "The Barracuda" Palin, a confident, moose-hunting, hockey-mom governor whose razor-sharp attacks on Barack Obama, Washington insiders and the U.S. media "elite" helped revive John McCain's presidential campaign in early September.
But as she prepares for her vice-presidential debate Thursday against Senator Joe Biden, Palin is now fighting to dispel perceptions among some conservatives that she's quickly becoming a political liability for the Republican candidate. Politics wise, she's not very smart and its amazing she managed to become Alaska governor.
McCain on Monday dispatched his two most senior aides - campaign manager Rick Davis and strategist Steve Schmidt - to his ranch in Sedona, Ariz., to begin three days of intense coaching with the Alaska governor ahead of her 90-minute showdown with Biden at Washington University in St. Louis.
The decision came amid widespread criticism in the media and - more distressing for McCain - mounting anxiety among Republicans over Palin's performance during an extended interview last week with CBS News anchor Katie Couric.
In its aftermath, Palin's favourable ratings have fallen and she's become fodder for withering satire on late-night comedy shows like Saturday Night Live - a fate that has hurt presidential candidates in the past.
"I think that most people looking at Thursday night's debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin are nervous, especially Republicans," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Because 90 minutes is a very long time - and you can only talk about gutting a moose once during that debate."
Palin earned a reputation as a strong debater during her 2006 gubernatorial campaign in Alaska, but she has appeared to struggle in one-on-one sessions with nationally known journalists since being named McCain's running mate.
In her interview with Couric, Palin offered this explanation of how Alaska's proximity to Russia enhanced her foreign policy experience.
"It's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia as (Russian prime minister Vladimir) Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America," Palin said. "Where, where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there."
Kathleen Parker, a syndicated conservative commentator, said the interviews showed Palin is "clearly out of her league" and called on her to step aside.
"I've been pulling for Palin, wishing her the best, hoping she will perform brilliantly," Parker, an early supporter of the governor, wrote in a post-Couric interview column. "I watch her interviews with the held breath of an anxious parent, my finger poised over the mute button in case it gets too painful. Unfortunately, it often does. My cringe reflex is exhausted."
There is a lively debate among Republicans about whether McCain's own campaign is partially to blame for Palin's problems. Advisers have largely shielded her from the media since her breakout performance at the Republican convention, placing extraordinary pressure on the governor in her few high-profile interviews.
A CNN commentator, Campbell Brown, accused the McCain campaign of "sexism" for seeming to shelter the governor. Palin's supporters say she has not been allowed to be herself.
"She'll get better. She's very talented at what she's been asked to do in the past," South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a McCain confidante, said in a televised interview. "She's going to have to show she's a valuable part of this team, that she's capable of the job, that she shares John's philosophy."
The stakes for McCain are high. The latest Gallup daily tracking poll of the U.S. presidential race shows Obama with an eight-point advantage - 50-42 per cent - over McCain.
"I think this debate is more important than most vice-presidential debates usually are because the McCain campaign is swimming upstream," Jillson said. "They are down in the polls. And if their vice-presidential candidate looks like she is not ready to be president of the United States, should the requirement fall on her, I think people will again look to Obama."
Biden faces many potential pitfalls himself, including the possibility he might underestimate Palin.
The Delaware senator has made several notable gaffes recently, criticizing one of his campaign's own anti-McCain ads and flubbing a historical reference to the 1929 stock market crash. He has a reputation for talking too extemporaneously and sounding condescending - which could backfire against Palin.
"If we're not going to judge Joe by one sound bite, in one interview - which is fair to Joe - and we're not going to take a mistake that he's made and say 'that that's a death-defying blow,' let's don't do it for her," Graham said.
To help Biden prepare, Obama's campaign enlisted Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm to act as pre-debate stand-in for Palin.
"How could you lose a debate with Sarah Palin? By running afoul of the gender issues, making women in particular feel as if Sarah Palin was unfairly treated the way some think Hillary Clinton was unfairly treated," said Jillson. "He's got to be respectful."
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