Sheltering Sarah Palin

Last week, I received an e-mail from a freelance scheduler who often offers me celebrities for my radio program. He had a question:

“Interested in Sarah Palin’s dad, Chuck Heath? …

“His passion for the outdoors is merged with a passion for hunting that he passed on to all his children. A trailer in his driveway has a bumper sticker reading ‘PETA _ People For Eating Tasty Animals.'”

Heath sounds interesting, but I passed. I’m holding out for an A-list Palin guest. Maybe her taxidermist. Or at least her optician.

Despite the fact that my program reaches a crucial part of a swing state, and I have already interviewed Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, I have given up hope of getting the vice-presidential candidate herself to answer my questions.

Another interesting e-mail arrived Wednesday, this one about the Republican National Committee’s new Web site, “The Joe Biden Gaffe Timeline.”

The e-mail said, “Democrat vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden’s gaffes have become so excessive that we’ve now dedicated an entire site, which includes an interactive timeline, map and videos to track Biden’s most noteworthy fumbles and missteps since becoming Barack Obama’s running mate.”

I looked at the site. Some funny stuff there. Say what you will about Biden, at least I know what I am getting with his candidacy, warts and all. Palin, meanwhile, continues to be a question mark.

When McCain picked Palin, I was troubled by her thin resume. Then she wowed with her speech at the Republican National Convention. Now, it’s time for her to move to the next level in the vice-presidential proving grounds. But the McCain campaign has kept the Alaska governor wrapped in a protective papoose instead of making her available for the normal give and take of a national campaign.

Sure, Palin appears at plenty of rallies and has proved she can deliver a speech. But in the five weeks since she has been named the vice-presidential candidate, she has sat for only three hand-selected interviews _ ABC News’ Charlie Gibson, Fox News’ Sean Hannity, and Katie Couric of CBS _ and taken four impromptu questions last week in New York City. Palin has not been questioned in a news conference.

The closest she has come to the Fourth Estate? Last week’s trip to Media _ Pennsylvania, that is.

After a stop at a Cleveland diner a few weeks ago, during which Palin offered a quick answer to a question about troubled insurer AIG, a staff member told the inquiring reporter that questions “weren’t allowed.” Last week, she ducked the pool print reporter (but not the camera crew) covering a Florida rally and hit a Cold Stone Creamery with her family. Soon after, reporters received an e-mail revealing which ice cream flavors the Palins had enjoyed.

So controlled is access to Palin that this week there was a kerfuffle when the McCain campaign sought to keep any editorial presence out of the room when camera footage was being recorded of her meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. To the extent that reporters complain, the campaign just stokes the base by whispering that the hated Mainstream Media is owed nothing. This message then gets parroted by its conservative friends.

There will be no shielding Palin on Thursday. She and Biden will share a stage and be questioned by Gwen Ifill, managing editor of PBS’s “Washington Week” _ though even that setting will be as structured as possible. We learned last week that while McCain and Obama will debate in a more free-flowing format, McCain campaign advisers had successfully insisted upon a more rigid, predictable arrangement for the vice-presidential debate.

Which may be the reason that, apart from Couric, Palin will remain off limits until then.

I think I have this all figured out.

The sheltering of Palin fosters a suspicion that she is ill-equipped to serve in the role for which McCain has selected her. Indeed, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll reported Wednesday that only 40 percent of voters think Palin is qualified to be president. And she didn’t do herself any favors when Couric asked for specific examples in which McCain called for more oversight on Wall Street: “I’ll try to find you some, and I’ll bring them to you,” Palin offered.

It all serves to lower expectations for her performance in the debate. Like a prizefighter with all the money wagered on his side, Biden is expected to outperform and overwhelm her with his knowledge of the issues. Which only sets the stage for people to walk away impressed with Palin if she simply remains standing when those 90 minutes are over.

After that, she can return to Dick Cheney’s bunker until Nov. 4.