Who was this woman with the vast family, the Neanderthal views on abortion and gay marriage, the empty CV and the voice that sounded as if she'd never stepped outside the 5,000 population town of which she had once been mayor?
Her signal achievements, the media reported, were as an aggressive player on her high school basketball team (nickname: Sarah Barracuda!), winner of a local beauty contest and loyal wife to the winner of the Alaskan snowmobile racing championship.
Then, as reporters descended on the state and filled their notebooks with takes from the burnished grudges of everyone she'd ever crossed, the story changed. The picture of pretty backcountry ingénue was torn off the front pages and hastily replaced by something much more sinister: the ruthlessly ambitious huckster, up to her eyes in corrupt state politics, a chancer heartless enough to expose her pregnant 17-year-old daughter to the horrors of a national political campaign. By the time the media has the final story straight - contemptible thick hick from the sticks or scary manipulator of helpless innocents - they might get to notice something else. People like her.
In Alaska, where she has been governor for almost two years, she has an 80 per cent approval rating. Her inclusion on the Republican ticket electrified a demotivated party. What they like about her is that, in an age when politicians seem to advance on the strength of their oratory and the loftiness of their ideals, Governor Palin is someone who has succeeded by that rarest of means - getting things done. She doesn't speak like Barack Obama or have the political longevity of Joe Biden, but she has arguably already achieved more than both of them.
Alaska is an Augean Stables of political corruption. For years, the state government, and its representatives in Washington, have functioned as a gigantic money-laundering operation, bringing home implausible am-ounts of federal cash to pay for grandiose public projects that serve no one but whose construction fills the pockets of important political contributors. Palin has tackled that culture. She challenged her own Republican party's leaders by running against them in the state's primary election. Once elected, she began dismantling the cash machine that had sustained government and politics. She work-ed with Democrats - in a real display of bipartisanship, as opposed to the rhetorical sort so beloved in Washington - to get the work done. This offers real hope for a becalmed Republican party. After almost a decade in which the party has squandered its enormous advantage in a trail of incompetence, corruption and narrow-minded extremism, John McCain's only hope is to offer the American people a vision of political reform in a conservative framework. Sarah Palin helps him to do that.
There's something else Alaskans - and other Americans - like about her. She's a leading woman politician who does not subscribe to the extremism of many of the so-called leaders of the women's movement. She is deeply and devoutly anti-abortion. She embraces wholeheartedly the role of "hockey mom" (a sort of Arctic Circle version of the celebrated "soccer mom"). She doesn't feel it necessary to complain about the unfairness of a male world.
Feminist leaders in America have for too long been allowed to get away with their claim that they alone represent women in the country. Yet their extreme views - especially support for abortion on demand, including of the grotesque method of partial-birth abortion - are not shared by all women. It's possible to be a real woman, successful and fulfilled, and still believe in the rights of the unborn.
In short, Sarah Palin is a slightly terrifying figure. She threatens established orders in American political life. It's no wonder those orders have sought by turns to diminish and then denigrate her. It's true too that there's much that is still unknown about John McCain's choice. She lacks any foreign policy experience; she has not yet been tested on the presidential election campaign trail, as fierce a crucible as there is in public life. In the remaining weeks of this election campaign, she will surely get that test. Senator McCain will know just how big a gamble he took when he chose her.
If she proves unready for the task, as she might - just too inexperienced, too brittle at this point for national politics - she and her running mate will surely go down to defeat. But she has a good story to tell - of a bright, idealistic young woman who has already changed the politics of her state and can do the same for the country. If she can pull it off she won't be underestimated again.