ST. PAUL, Minn. | Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has long backed abstinence prior to marriage and urged the nurturing of pregnant teens. A few months before the biggest political leap of her life, both issues hit home.
Mrs. Palin said Monday that her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, is pregnant out of wedlock. It was revealed just three days after Sen. John McCain named the first-term governor as his vice-presidential running mate in a move aimed in part at bolstering the senator’s appeal among social conservatives.
Mrs. Palin, 44 and a mother of five, is an influential member of the pro-life women’s rights group Feminists for Life of America, which presses for extra support for young mothers. While running for governor in 2006, Mrs. Palin identified herself as “pro-contraception” and said she would support funding for abstinence-until-marriage education programs.
“I believe in the strength and the power of women, and the potential of every human life,” Mrs. Palin told the Anchorage Daily News.
Mrs. Palin released the news of Bristol’s pregnancy through Mr. McCain’s presidential campaign in an effort to quell Internet rumors that her infant son, Trig, was actually her grandson.
In a statement, Mrs. Palin said her daughter, now five months pregnant, would have the baby with the full support of her family. She also said Bristol would marry the father of the baby.
“Bristol and the young man she will marry are going to realize very quickly the difficulties of raising a child, which is why they will have the love and support of our entire family,” Mrs. Palin said in a joint statement with her husband, Todd.
After releasing the statement, the McCain campaign said it would take a hands-off approach to the situation. Campaign officials said the senator from Arizona knew about the pregnancy when he was considering a running mate and chose Mrs. Palin anyway.
“This is the governor’s daughter; it is their issue,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Mr. McCain’s top policy adviser.
Mr. McCain announced Mrs. Palin as his running mate on Friday in a surprise move designed to steal some of the momentum of the Democratic National Convention, where Barack Obama accepted the party’s presidential nomination a day earlier. Campaigning Monday in Monroe, Mich., Mr. Obama warned the media to “back off” any criticism of Bristol’s pregnancy and told reporters that families - and especially children - should be off limits during the presidential campaign.
Mr. Obama noted that his own mother was 18 when she gave birth to him.
“This shouldn’t be part of our politics,” Mr. Obama said. “It has no relevance to Governor Palin’s performance as a governor or her potential performance as a vice president.”
Mr. Obama vehemently denied the published suggestion from a McCain aide that Mr. Obama’s campaign had ties to the blogs that were spreading rumors about Mrs. Palin’s family. He said that he was “offended” by that suggestion and that if any of his staff was involved in spreading the rumors, “they’d be fired.”
Mrs. Palin describes herself as a “hockey mom,” and Republicans have hailed her as a champion of the pro-life movement, especially because she gave birth to Trig in April despite knowing the child had Down syndrome.
Mr. Holtz-Eakin said Mr. McCain still “has complete confidence in [Mrs. Palin] as a running mate” and that the excitement over her candidacy continues to grow. He added that news of her daughter’s pregnancy wouldn’t hurt Mrs. Palin’s image among voters.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres agreed, saying the situation might help Mrs. Palin attract conservative voters.
“Why?” Mr. Ayres said. “Because we have an example of two … women - the mother and the daughter - who not only talk the talk but walk the walk.”
Pro-family conservatives were careful to say that they did not condone pregnancy out of wedlock and wanted to reduce its occurrence. But they praised the fact that Bristol decided to have the child.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a major social conservative organization, said teen pregnancies have “become all too common in today’s society,” and stressed that it is a “problem” best reduced through abstinence. But he said, “Fortunately, Bristol is following her mother and father’s example of choosing life in the midst of a difficult situation.”
James Dobson, the pro-life founder of Focus on the Family who endorsed Mr. McCain after he named Mrs. Palin as his running mate, commended the Palin family for living out their pro-life values.
“The media are already trying to spin this as evidence Governor Palin is a ‘hypocrite,’ but all it really means is that she and her family are human,” said Mr. Dobson. “They are in my prayers and those of millions of Americans.”
Gary Bauer, an evangelical leader and former domestic policy adviser in the Reagan White House, said he “would have thought less of [Mr. McCain] if he had not gone on to choose” Mrs. Palin as his running mate.
“Our movement has the reputation of being judgmental and finger-pointing,” Mr. Bauer said.
Many delegates attending the Republican National Convention shared that view.
“It’s a family issue, and this could happen to anyone,” said Arkansas delegate Bobbi Dodge.
Charcie Russell, a Colorado delegate wearing a “Moms for McCain” shirt on the convention floor Monday, said the pregnancy proves Mrs. Palin’s pro-life stance.
“This is a family who has had two opportunities to abort, and they haven’t,” she added. “They have chosen life every time.”
Becky Balts, a delegate from Wisconsin, said Mrs. Palin should have come forward with the pregnancy Friday.
But “I’m not electing her daughter,” she said. “I’m voting for a president.”
Stu Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst, said the news probably would not hurt Mrs. Palin in the long run, but at the moment, “it’s embarrassing and it’s a distraction and you’d rather introduce Sarah Palin to the world without this piece of information.”
Reporters Ralph Z. Hallow, Jon Ward, Stephen Dinan, Christina Bellantoni, Hannah Wahlen and James Armstrong contributed to this report.