In-depth coverage of the candidates and the issues, all leading up to the Aug. 5 primary and the Nov. 4 general election.
It's happening around the coffee machine at work and the dinner table at home. Your hear it at football games, cocktail parties and on supermarket lines. It's consuming unmeasurable chunks of cyberspace.
It's the Sarah Palin Conversation, and these days it can seem to be the only one we're having - especially women, for whom it's becoming increasingly passionate and partisan. We're having this conversation whether we love her or hate her.
The right woman?
For Angela Hampton, it was the tailgate talk at last weekend's Appalachian State football game in Boone, N.C., where she and her friends munched on sides and dips and discussed John McCain's new running mate. The tone was overwhelmingly positive.
"We all decided we really like her, based on her freshness," says Hampton, a 34-year-old mother who works in the loan department of a bank. "It's what I keep hearing: She's a breath of fresh air, just what we need to shake things up." Hampton, a registered Republican, was nonetheless planning to vote Democrat this year - until she watched Palin's convention speech.
"I thought, wow," says Hampton. "I was hooked. I really think she represents the true American woman." And though her tailgating friends, more conservative than she, readily agreed, her mother does not: A staunch Democrat, she's firmly in Obama's column.
In Richmond, Va., Margaret Turman Kidd spent last weekend having The Conversation with her own visiting mother, trying to convince her that the Alaska governor is the wrong choice.
"I finally had to make myself stop talking," says Kidd, 31, who's voted both Democratic and Republican in the past. "I hope I was at least making her stop and think."
But Kidd's mother, a former Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter, likes Palin - partially, her daughter says, because of her personal qualities and also, she guesses, because she's a woman. And that's an issue that Kidd, like many women, is struggling with: Wouldn't it be thrilling to see a woman VP, no matter what her policies?
"No doubt, that's compelling," says Kidd. "But I just don't feel she's the RIGHT woman. There are other women out there who have much more experience. I try to keep an open mind, but the more that comes out, the less I like her."
Around the Net
While some women, in conversations, applaud the Republicans for nominating a woman, others call it a cynical, even insulting plug for their votes. These women agree with Gloria Steinem, the feminist icon whose recent essay, "Palin: wrong woman, wrong message," has been circulated widely via e-mail.
Also making the rounds is an e-mail from Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, telling women that "if you can only do one thing, it should be to tell every woman you meet that McCain and Palin are the most anti-choice, anti-women pair imaginable." Another, from two magazine editors in New York, is titled "Fury, Dread, Palin" and invites women to a blog, "Women Against Sarah Palin."
Then there's the endless chatter on message boards everywhere. "OK, who's interested in joining me for an online mom campaign against Palin?" reads a post this week on urbanbaby.com. "What makes Obama more qualified than Sarah Palin?" reads another.
For devotees of Facebook, the social networking site, there are hundreds of groups to join, both for and against Palin: "Governor Sarah Palin for VP Fans." "Sarah Palin is Awesome." "I Have More Foreign Policy Experience Than Sarah Palin." "My Pet Rock is More Qualified Than Sarah Palin to Be Vice President."
Nancy Connors, a lifelong Democrat from Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., is amazed by all the back-and-forth. "The e-mail traffic from women is astounding," she says. "I must get five or six a day, some from women I don't even know." A former Clinton supporter, she says she's deeply concerned by what she sees as Palin's "nonexistent qualifications."
"We'd be the laughingstock of the world," says Connors. "Can you imagine her trying to negotiate with Putin?" Yet the 56-year-old consultant avoids workplace conversations, feeling they're inappropriate. Instead, she plans to work phone banks for Obama.
Palin in the polls
Polls suggest he could use the help, especially in the crucial voting bloc of white women. An Associated Press-GfK poll released Friday found Obama leading women overall by 5 points, but McCain leading by 12 points among white women. Asked which candidate "cares a lot about people like you," white women chose McCain first (47 percent), then Palin (45 percent), then Obama (38 percent).
And Palin ranked higher, at 42 percent, than either McCain or Obama when white women were asked which candidate shares their values and principles "a lot." The poll of likely voters was conducted Sept. 5-10.
"She's definitely energized the election, no matter what your leaning is," says Sue Wagner, a mother of four in University Park, Md. Wagner, 41, doesn't work outside the home, but encounters plenty of Sarah Palin conversations nonetheless - often between mothers at school drop-off time, or at the playground. "There's a debate going on, but it's pretty friendly," she says.
Wagner decided long ago that she was voting for Obama. But her friend Katy Huggins isn't so sure anymore. Huggins, also a mother of four, admires Obama, and though she's a registered Republican, she'd been planning to vote for the Democrat.
Then she watched Palin's convention speech.
"I was like, wow, I want YOU to be president!" says Huggins, who adds that she isn't much of a McCain fan. "I could completely relate to her on a lot of levels, especially as a mom. That's what my world is about now." Since then, Huggins has engaged in the Palin conversation with friends, fellow moms, even teachers at school, many of whom start by asking, "Hey, what do you think about that lady?"
Huggins is still undecided. But she says one thing is clear: "Every person I have spoken to is intrigued. Democrats, Republicans, everyone. They're all fascinated with her."