Lisa Oquist would probably have voted Republican in November. But Sen. John McCain's surprise choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate "reinforced" that inclination.
"She's just very convincing," said Oquist, 44, a stay-at-home mother and Republican, picking up her daughter at Centerville Elementary School in Urbana. "Here's this mom with five kids, and she's very successful. I think that's a real positive for women."
A few miles north on Urbana Pike, Patti Burch, a mother of three, dismissed the Palin pick as "demeaning" and said it only heightened the 57-year-old Democrat's enthusiasm for Sen. Barack Obama.
"Just because you're a mom of five doesn't mean you can run the country," said Burch, who works at the Gaithersburg library.
As Palin got her first taste of the rigors of a national campaign this week, with an ambitious schedule and challenging questions from a network anchor, women across the political spectrum engaged in a robust debate over her candidacy.
Palin's selection changed the contours of the presidential race when she burst on the scene two weeks ago, energizing many Republican-leaning voters who were less than enthusiastic about McCain.
At the same time, it has raised the ire of Democrats, who question her qualifications and views on social issues.
Interviews with two dozen women in Frederick County's fast-growing suburbs found intense interest in Palin that spanned party lines, raising questions about whether her sudden rise to prominence will change the views of women voters.
The impact remains hard to gauge, however, as the Republican ticket's post-convention bounce subsides and Palin continues to make her views known on issues such as war with Russia and Israel's right to attack Iran.
Some polls have found a shift among women - whites in particular - from Obama to McCain. In others, independent voters of both genders appear to be edging McCain's way, but it is not clear why.
"I'm just not convinced it's the Palin effect," said Lydia Saad, senior editor at Gallup, a polling company.
McCain and Obama entered the conventions even, she said, and McCain emerged four points ahead in Gallup polling, a bump Saad attributes more to McCain's compelling life story as a former prisoner of war than to zeal for Palin.
Other polls since then suggest that the race has drawn even again.
Pollster John Zogby said Palin's "strength is not her appeal to suburban women. If anything, that's John McCain's appeal when he's John McCain the centrist. Sarah Palin is the red-meat conservative who would appeal to conservative women."
Interviews along Urbana Pike bore out that notion. Palin has bolstered voting choices, but there was little evidence of women voters switching support from Obama to McCain.
To many Republicans and McCain backers, Palin is an inspirational figure who would perform well as vice president, or even president, and who brings welcome conservative bona fides.
To many Democrats and Obama backers, she's a fairly likable but ill-prepared candidate with some views - opposition to abortion, for one - they reject.
But for at least some women still shopping around, Palin is exerting an influence.
Casie Chang is a registered Democrat who remains open to voting for Obama but who, for now, is on board with McCain precisely because of Palin.
"She really pushed it over the top for me," said Chang, a 35-year-old full-time mother. Partly it's because Palin is "personable" and "down to earth," and partly because her tenure as mayor of the small Alaskan town of Wasilla constitutes valuable experience. "You know what people's wants and needs are; you're really part of the community," Chang said.
Watching her three young sons scamper around the playground at Urbana Park, she said she could not imagine taking on such a job while raising her boys. But she does not see that as a problem for Palin, who has five children, including an infant born in April with Down syndrome.
"She knows what she's in for," she said. "When you have a child, your multi-tasking skills just kick in."
Yet Chang supports abortion rights. "The pro-life thing does bother me a little bit. ... If I had a daughter, the last thing I would want is for someone to tell her what she could or could not do."
Differences over abortion do not matter equally to everyone. Oquist, the newly enthusiastic McCain supporter, also calls herself pro-choice. But as she and her daughter Emily headed home from Centerville Elementary, she said Palin's opposing position would not affect her vote.
Of greater concern, she said, are Obama's lack of executive experience, his call to end tax cuts on high earners and his former pastor's racially tinged statements
"I just can't say I trust the experience Obama has," she said.
Advances that McCain makes among women - who make up more than half of all voters in recent presidential elections - could pay solid dividends. A majority of women voters have supported Democratic candidates for decades, while Republican presidential candidates have generally garnered the male vote.
Susan Dwyer, 54-year-old Republican from Jefferson, said Palin erased the "misgivings" she felt about McCain's stance on immigration, and she called Palin's ascent in politics a compelling story.
"It's really inspiring to see somebody that's coming from everyday roots aspire to be governor and possibly vice president," she said as she stopped for lunch at a Panera Bread on Urbana Pike. "Somebody that's not a professional politician, somebody that's real."
That word - real - came up often in conversations with Palin supporters.
Debbie Lytle, 39, mentioned it while discussing Palin as she waited outside Urbana Middle School for her son, J.P. She lives in Urbana and is an independent who leans Republican. She was always inclined to support McCain, but now does so with gusto.
"The fact that she has the newborn with Down syndrome and the daughter who's pregnant - I think that's great. Because I think it shows a real person. She's a real person with a real life, and she can identify with real America," Lytle said.
Laura Fisher, a Republican Obama supporter from Frederick, expressed disgust that Palin is on the ticket.
"I don't want a hockey mom," said Fisher, 38. "I want someone who's been there and knows what she's doing.
Fisher called it a "smart ploy" for McCain to tap Palin but said that if any woman supports the ticket because of gender, "that dumbs us all."
A few minutes later, second-grade teacher Kathy Johnson walked into Panera with her 6-year-old son, Kendall. Johnson, 43, is a registered Democrat from New Market who backed Sen. Hillary Clinton during the bruising Democratic primary campaign. She called herself "a little bit scared" of Palin.
"She hasn't won me over. Comparing herself to a pit bull, that doesn't impress me. What I want to hear about are the issues: education, health care, women's rights, the war," Johnson said. "I haven't heard a lot about that."
What she has heard so far concerns her, notably Palin's opposition to abortion even in case of rape or incest. "I have a daughter who's 10. It's real scary."
At Mangia E Bevi restaurant in Urbana, 26-year-old Heather Wilson was having lunch with her friend Kate Berman, 20. Wilson, a Democrat who backs Obama, saw more to like in Palin than did Berman, who is unaffiliated and not yet behind either Obama or McCain.
"I don't think very highly of her," Berman said. She questions Palin's suitability for office given that her unmarried teenage daughter is pregnant.
Wilson, despite her support for Obama, thinks she could be friends with Palin. Her issue is with Palin's lack of experience, a concern magnified by the fact that Palin would succeed McCain, 72, if he died in office.
"That's kind of a scary thought," Wilson said, a sentiment shared by several Palin detractors.
Then again, noted a handful of McCain-Palin supporters, one could argue that Palin has more executive experience than Obama.
Back at the Panera in the sprawl south of Frederick, Lisa Mackintosh was one of the only women who said she did not know enough yet to have a strong opinion. She's a registered Republican and a stay-at-home mother with four kids. She likes what she has heard about Palin, so far.
"But I'm just waiting to make sure there aren't other things I will disagree with strongly," she said. "I think there is a lot to learn yet."
David Zurawik on Palin's interview with Charles Gibson. pg 14