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Commentary: America, meet Sarah Palin

  • Story Highlights
  • Palin was born in Idaho in 1964, moved with parents to Alaska
  • Johnson: Palin connects with people, holds more than 80 percent approval rating
  • Palin's daughter's pregnancy shouldn't be fodder for gossip, says Johnson
  • Alaskans like her fierce resolve in standing up to GOP, confronting big oil companies
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By Kaylene Johnson
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Kaylene Johnson is the author of the Sarah Palin biography, "Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Politics Upside Down." Johnson, who says her political affiliation is "undeclared," lives on a small farm outside Wasilla, Alaska, the governor's hometown. Johnson did not know Palin before researching and writing the book. She has written for the Los Angeles Times, Alaska magazine and other publications.

Kaylene Johnson says the meteoric rise of a small-town mayor onto the national scene also stunned Alaskans.

WASILLA, Alaska (CNN) -- The first time I met Sarah Palin, I went into her Anchorage office to interview the first woman and youngest governor ever elected in Alaska.

As a freelance writer, I had been asked by Kent Sturgis, publisher at Epicenter Press, to write her biography. It was a plum assignment; Alaskans are intrigued by this woman.

I took a seat at the end of a couch that was draped with the cape of a brown bear her father had shot on a hunting trip.

Rather than sit behind her sprawling governor's desk, she pulled up a chair and began to ask me questions: Did I have a family? What were my children's names? How had I come to write a story about her? (As if this were surprising to her.)

Her office door was open, and eventually her husband, Todd, strolled in and casually sat at her desk, listening to our conversation while keeping an eye on the news quietly being broadcast on a small television near her desk.

It is easy to see why Alaskans hold the affection they do for their governor. She holds over 80 percent approval ratings in part because she connects with people. During her campaign for City Council, she and Todd went door to door pulling a wagon with their son Track, 4, and 2-year-old daughter, Bristol.

She doesn't have to pretend to understand the sensibilities of the average citizen, because she's been there; she and her family have experienced the same struggles to get by. iReport.com: Your thoughts on Sarah Palin

Alaskans like her fierce resolve in standing up against her own ethically challenged state Republican Party and confronting big oil companies whose power fuels the state's economy.

How her spunk translates onto the national scene is unfolding daily.

Palin's firing of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan has become the first serious controversy during her term in office. The investigation under way will determine whether she unduly influenced Monegan to seek the firing of her ex-brother-in-law, trooper Michael Wooten.

The latest controversy over the Palins' unmarried daughter's pregnancy is a private family matter that has spilled over into public spectacle.

If the Palin family story is discussed at all, it should be in the broader context of how, as parents, we talk to our children about sex and how, as a nation, we support mothers and address teenage pregnancy but not as fodder for public gossip.

As the family negotiates these very personal decisions in the light of a very public campaign, the issue does reveal a consistency between Palin's personal beliefs and her public pro-life stance. Just as the family has embraced the challenges of raising a special-needs child, they have embraced 17-year-old Bristol's decision to take on the responsibilities of becoming a parent.

The truth is that the meteoric rise of a small town mayor onto the national scene is as stunning to Alaskans as the rest of the nation.

Sarah was born in Idaho in 1964, the third of four children. The family moved to Skagway, Alaska, when she was 2 months old, and her father took a teaching job there.

Palin's mother, Sally, took the family to church, and her father, Chuck, instilled in her a love for sports and competition. Today, Palin's parents stay busy hunting, fishing, gold-mining and caring for grandchildren. Chuck is a retired teacher, and Sally worked as a school secretary.

Just a few short months ago, I sat at the kitchen table of Rev. Paul Riley and his wife, Helen, in Wasilla, Alaska. This soft-spoken elderly couple may be two of just a handful of people who are not surprised by her nomination as John McCain's choice for vice president of the United States.

Palin grew up in the Rileys' church, and they share a sense of destiny about Palin's future. When she was elected governor, Riley told Palin that like the Old Testament story of Queen Esther, she had "come to the Kingdom for such a time as this."

During a second interview with Palin, I asked what legacy she hoped to leave as governor of Alaska.

"I hope our legacy is that we put Alaskans' interests first," Palin said. "Alaska is not just an outpost on the edge of the continent. We can and should become bigger contributors to the United States, both in terms of resources and of leadership."

Sarah Palin has certainly put Alaska on the national map and put herself forward as one of those leaders.

Tonight, when she speaks at the Republican National Convention, the rest of America will meet her.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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