Everyone has an opinion on Sarah Palin
Only a few weeks ago, no-one had heard of former beauty contestant Sarah Palin. Now she could well determine the entire outcome of this year's US presidential election.
A political race pitting black Democrat candidate Barack Obama against white Irish American Republican candidate John McCain has suddenly become completely diverted by mum-of-five Palin.
The attractive gun-toting Governor of Alaska, who is McCain's surprise running mate, has captured the imagination of America's notoriously fickle voters, who are lapping up tawdry tales about her in the country's tabloid magazines.
Love her or hate her, it seems that everyone has an opinion on sexy Sarah, whether they be celebrated movie critic Roger Ebert — who describes Palin as "a shallow, chirpy person with those vaguely alarming eyeglasses" — or Scottish-born US chat show host Craig Ferguson, who admires her "naughty librarian vibe".
Palin's elevation to Republican deputy has ensured that what should have been the major election issues — immigration, the Iraq war and America's troubled schools — have instead now been pushed into the background by guns and gun control.
Like many Alaskans, Palin is a lifelong hunter and supporter of Second Amendment rights. As a member of the National Rifle Association, she proudly declares: "I hunt as much as I can, and my freezer is full of wild game harvested here in Alaska. My favourite food is moose stew after a day of snow-machining."
Obama, on the other hand insists assault weapons pose a deadly threat to America's streets. "The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland," he said, "but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals."
As Dennis Hennigan of gun-reform lobby group the Brady Centre, says: "The lines are being more clearly drawn on the gun issue.
"Just one day after Senator Obama made it clear that he thinks assault weapons should be banned in a remarkable portion of his speech, here Senator McCain selects someone who is not only proud to be endorsed by [the NRA], an opponent of that ban, but apparently is pretty enthusiastic about the guns themselves."
Guns are not the primary issue, however. The issue dividing the nation is Palin herself.
After Obama blundered by comparing her gimmicky appointment as like putting "lipstick on a pig," America's predominantly white "soccer moms" deserted him in droves. The apparently innocent quote, which may well come back to haunt Obama, was made at a rally in which he quipped: "You can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig."
Now according, to a Washington Post survey, a narrow lead for Senator Obama has become a substantial one for McCain.
Attacking a politician's personal life can often blow up in their rivals' faces. Bill Clinton, for instance, actually became MORE popular after his fling with Monica Lewinsky was publicised.
Nonetheless, a series of salacious scandals have been leaked this weekend to the nation's biggest tabloid, The National Enquirer, which trumpets the headline: "Sarah Palin: What she's hiding". Among the juicy tidbits are Palin's pregnant 17-year-old daughter Bristol, who apparently scandalised her small town by smoking dope and her 19-year-old son Track, who allegedly had a "secret drug addiction [and used] needles, pills and cocaine".
According to the Enquirer many insiders are terrified of coming forward because they fear the Governor, who has earned the nickname ‘Sarah Barracuda’.
The Enquirer explains: "Palin is well known in Alaska for holding grudges and seeking payback against people who oppose her."
Anticipating the inevitable smear campaigns, Palin quickly reported that unmarried teen Bristol was pregnant but that hasn't stopped the mudslinging and re-investigation of the so-called ‘Troopergate’ scandal, involving her former brother-in-law.
Obama initially threw in 65-year-old Irish American veteran Joe Biden as his own running mate to quell criticisms of his lack of experience. But in what may turn out to be a master stroke, his crusty old Republican rival McCain went the other way, appointing the much younger Sarah (44).
The Palin appointment could pay dividends for the McCain team which — after playing up its candidate’s Co Armagh origins — recently ended up with goo on its face when it was revealed one of McCain's own Irish ancestors was actually a Catholic-hating Orangeman who fought alongside King Billy.
Bumper stickers in Palin's tiny hometown of Wasilla proclaim, "The coldest state with the hottest governor," but the smear campaigns have already started with stories appearing about her pregnant teenage daughter and her husband's drink driving conviction.
She won the Miss Wasilla beauty pageant in 1984 and was a runner-up that year in the Miss Alaska beauty pageant. McCain's family came over to America from Co Armagh several centuries ago and he has told friends he is determined to revisit the land of his ancestors birth.
Not only that, he has announced plans to appoint a US special envoy to Northern Ireland should he get into power. The key move followed Obama dithering on the issue and even suggesting he might scrap the post himself because he believed the crisis period has passed and that the people were now in charge of their own destiny.
Behind the Palin factor and the gun issue, immigration reform will be one of the election's hot potatoes, with McCain promising to give thousands of undocumented Irish immigrants living in America the opportunity to become legal citizens. Neither Obama nor McCain is quite so accommodating to wards Mexican illegals, however, and both voted to authorise construction of a 700-mile fence along the US-Mexican border.