- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

The scene was carefully choreographed, but still decidely moving — 72-year-old Sen. John McCain, meeting the pregnant 17-year-old daughter of his running mate and, for the first time, her fiance at the airport, put a hand on each of their arms and pulled the couple close.

He spoke softly. Bristol Palin, showing her pregnancy as the breeze whipped open her short brown jacket, leaned in to hear what Mr. McCain, a grandfather, had to say. He already had given her a long, tight hug, and when he stepped down to meet Levi Johnston, 18, he patted his shoulder as the two shook hands. The boy looked remarkably young, smiling uncomfortably, his cheeks pink from the breeze, or a blush.

Mr. McCain stood for nearly a minute with a hand on each of their arms, almost like a preacher presiding over a marriage.

“The kid is probably scared to death after the media coverage,” said Texas convention delegate Greg Simmons. “What it tells me is that the senator is a compassionate man.”

Gary Herbert, Utah’s lieutenant governor and a delegate, said: “It shows what a gracious man he is and that he’ll stand by the Palin family in this time of great scrutiny.”

While most of the attention at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday focused on the speech of vice-presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin, the two teenagers once unknown to the world stepped onto the national stage as well. While teen pregnancies are usually accompanied by embarrassment as family, friends and neighbors find out, millions worldwide know about this one.

Although the revelation that the young couple conceived a child out of wedlock has knocked the Republican ticket’s campaign off-stride, the Mrs. Palin, a mother of five children, and Mr. McCain, a father of seven, decided not to shy away from the swirling controversy, and instead openly embraced the soon-to-be teen parents.

Social conservatives - who greeted the Palin pick enthusiastically - did not abandon the embattled mother, but instead closed ranks, just as the McCain and Palin families did. All 12 children were at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to welcome the candidate, who on Thursday will become the Republican presidential nominee.

At the convention hall Wednesday, delegates deemed it fitting that Mr. Johnston joined the family. T.J. Augustine, of Iowa, said the teenager “deserves to be here.”

“This shows a lot of integrity on his part,” Mr. Augustine said. “He has come to stand with his future wife and family.”

Texas delegate David Barton credited Mr. Johnston for not “running from his mistake,” while Joe Barton, of Georgia, said the teen wouldn’t receive a harsh reception.

“This is a personal matter, but we welcome him with open arms,” Mr. Barton said. “I think it’s neat. Why wouldn’t he come?”

Said Pete Higgins, a delegate from Fairbanks, Alaska, “It’s probably the best thing because Sarah’s always been a person [who’s] not about hiding things from the public.”

Mr. Johnston left Alaska on Tuesday morning to join the Palin family at the convention. His mother, Sherry Johnston, said there had been no pressure put on her son to marry Bristol, adding that the two teens had made plans to wed before it was known she was pregnant.

“This is just a bonus,” Mrs. Johnston said.

Mr. McCain, who truncated his campaign schedule in deference to Hurricane Gustav, said nothing to reporters when he stepped off his plane.

In an afternoon interview for ABC News, though, the candidate defended his running mate amid charges that she was poorly vetted.

“She is experienced, she’s talented, she knows how to lead, and she has been vetted by the people of the state of Alaska,” Mr. McCain said. “Americans are going to be very, very, very pleased. … She’s going to have a remarkable impact on the American people. … I’m very excited.”

But the vacuum created by Mr. McCain’s light campaign schedule has left the spotlight on Mrs. Palin. While she prepared for the speech of her career, Mr. McCain’s top strategist, Steve Schmidt, complained about a “faux media scandal,” generated, he said, by “the old boys’ network that has come to dominate the news establishment.”

“This nonsense is over,” he said.

Equally insistent, former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift said, “Just like me, we can assume Governor Palin loves her children, and we can just leave it at that.”

“Both candidates have made clear that family members are off-limits,” McCain spokesman Ben Porritt said. “One of the last civil aspects that remains in politics is to stay away from the candidates’ children.”

With Mrs. Palin’s speech before thousands of true-blue Republicans, Mr. McCain said in the ABC interview he thinks the storyline will soon change.

“I believe … tonight’s performance will convince a lot of Americans, and a lot of this other stuff will go away immediately,” he said.

Hannah Wahlen and James Armstrong contributed to this report.

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