The Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee is expected to address her party's national convention tonight. But that's not her toughest challenge.

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She’s hunted moose at midnight without batting an eyelash, but Sarah Palin now finds herself up against the biggest beast of all: cultural expectations for women.

The Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee is expected to address her party’s national convention tonight. But that’s not her toughest challenge.

Unlike a previous generation of female politicians — such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 68, or even Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, 60, runner-up to Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination — the 44-year-old Palin is beset by questions, apprehensions, opinions, assumptions and accusations that her older countrywomen rarely faced.

Palin has won a beauty pageant and caught salmon. She runs and she hunts and she races snowmobiles. She and her husband, Todd Palin, are raising five children, including one with Down syndrome. She’s part Annie Oakley, part Anita Bryant.

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And Palin is young and pretty, in what some commentators have referred to as a “sexy librarian” sort of way. But does pointing that out constitute sexism?

“How do you talk about women candidates without mentioning that they’re — well, women?” muses Nancy Pearl, Seattle-based librarian and author of “Book Lust,” who writes often about images of professional women.

“And then,” she adds, “how can you not talk about how sexy they are or aren’t?”

Once Sen. John McCain’s pick was confirmed Friday, blogs began to twitch and burble with descriptions such as “smokin’ hot” and “easy on the eyes.” Then came the backlash: How dare Palin seek such a demanding office while being responsible for five children? When news broke earlier this week that Bristol, Palin’s unmarried 17-year-old daughter, is five months pregnant, the cyberscythes began to swing higher and wider.

Never mind that many male politicians have large families and are rarely challenged about their ability to balance work and family. Or that many American families have dealt with the pregnancies of teenage daughters.

With the Palin pick, the nation is entering unknown territory — and not just because McCain’s running mate hails from Alaska.

She faces a barrage of revelations about her and questions about how carefully McCain screened her before he stunned the political world — and many of his own supporters — Friday by naming her as his running mate.

“Palin’s speech may be the most important moment at the entire convention,” said pollster Scott Rasmussen. “Important not just for her, but for the entire McCain campaign.”

Since Sunday night, Palin has been holed up in her suite in the Hilton Minneapolis while a parade of McCain’s top advisers have briefed her on the nuances of his policy positions, national politics and, above all, how to introduce herself to the national audience she will address tonight.

Not anticipating that McCain would choose a woman as his running mate, the speech that the McCain team prepared in advance was “very masculine,” according to campaign manager Rick Davis, and “we had to start from scratch.”

“Basically, she has to be herself” in the speech, said pollster John Zogby. “If there’s anything she brings to the ticket, it’s authenticity.”

He said she should talk about her family. “She can’t finesse that,” he said. “She can make the case without being defensive that there are challenges being a mother, that it’s a family issue, and that she asks people to please respect our privacy.”

Carol Felsenthal, Chicago-based author of “Clinton in Exile,” points out that Palin is turning traditional ideological stances upside-down — another measure of the unprecedented nature of what the aspiring vice president represents.

“There’s such a role reversal,” Felsenthal says. “You have this conservative, pro-life Republican woman — but it’s the liberal Democrats who are saying, ‘But who’s going to take care of the children?’ “

Felsenthal also notes that both Sen. Joseph Biden, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican said to have been on McCain’s shortlist for the vice-presidential spot, have mentioned their wives’ physical attractiveness in public, along with chuckling references to their own homeliness.

How comfortable would we be with a female candidate who referred to a hunky husband and her own dowdiness?

“When a woman’s looks are mentioned, some people say, ‘Well, that’s just life,’ ” says Leonard Kniffel, editor in chief of American Libraries, the magazine of the Chicago-based American Library Association. “But women, many times, are judged first on their looks.”

New and different roles for women can induce discomfort and anxiety in some people — just as does the prospect of an African-American president. But this is, by most accounts, an election year in which the hunger for change is a crucial factor. And with the Palin pick, both political parties are offering a vigorous variation of the same old thing.

Includes material from McClatchy Newspapers and The Washington Post

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