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Originally published Friday, August 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Alaska governor Palin comes from small town to national stage

The selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate marks an extraordinary political rise for a 44-year-old Alaskan whose previous highest elected office — just three years ago — was mayor of Wasilla, a town near Anchorage with a population of less than 10,000.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate marks an extraordinary political rise for a 44-year-old Alaskan whose previous highest elected office — just three years ago — was mayor of Wasilla, a town near Anchorage with a population of less than 10,000.

Following FBI searches of the state Legislature in the summer of 2006 that marked the start of a major political scandal in Alaska, Palin upset Republican incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski and went on to beat her Democratic challenger, former Gov. Tony Knowles, to claim the top state office.

Since moving into the governor's mansion in Juneau in December of 2006, Palin has earned a reputation as a reformer who worked with both Democrats and Republicans to overhaul the state oil-tax system and to restore confidence in state government shaken by political-corruption scandals.

For most of that time, she has been enormously popular, gaining some of the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country.

Palin can claim to be an outsider to Washington, D.C., politics, which Republicans could contrast with the insider status of Sen. Joseph Biden, the Democrat's vice-presidential nominee who has spent most of his career on Capitol Hill.

But Palin's brief tenure in state government — and lack of experience in a nationally elected office — could be a tempting target for Democrats who have smarted from Sen. John McCain's efforts to paint Sen. Barack Obama as too inexperienced for the White House.

This summer, Palin also has had a major political setback in Alaska as a nasty divorce involving her sister seeped into state government, and the Alaska Legislature has appointed an investigator to look for possible abuses of office.

The scandal broke after the Alaska Commissioner of Public Safety Walter Monegan left office, and alleged that he had been bumped out because he would not terminate a state trooper once married to Palin's sister, who was then involved in a child custody dispute.

Earlier this month. Palin released an audio recording that detailed an aide's attempt to pressure the Public Safety Department to fire the state trooper, according to The Anchorage Daily News.

Palin said that her staff had made about two dozen contacts with public safety officials about the trooper, according to the Anchorage newspaper.

"I do now have to tell Alaskans that such pressure could have been perceived to exist although I have only now become aware of it," Palin said.

But Palin said that she didn't fire Monegan due to his reluctance to force out the trooper.

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Palin oil tax policies could also draw scrutiny as she is vaulted into a national spotlight.

In June, Republicans in Congress united to defeat a proposed windfall tax on oil companies, deriding it as a bad idea that would discourage investment in U.S. oil exploration.

But Palin overcame tough opposition from the Alaska oil industry to pass a major tax increase on state production to capture more of the windfall when prices are high.

"By receiving an equitable share for our resources, we are now in a position to demand more accountability and seize opportunities to save for future generations," Palin said in a statement released last December as she signed the next tax bill into law.

But oil industry officials in Alaska have a different view, which reflects their opposition at the national level to higher taxes.

"What the tax has done is take away all the upside," said Doug Suttles, president of BP Alaska, in an interview with The Seattle Times earlier this summer. The U.K.-based oil company paid more than $500 million in taxes to Alaska last quarter — far more than it earned in profits from Alaskan oil, according to Suttles.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com. Seattle Times reporter Angel Gonzalez contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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