WEST VALLEY CITY — John McCain's running mate in his 2008 presidential bid, Sarah Palin, "would have added a lot to the race" had she been a candidate for the White House this election, the senator said Thursday.
"How she would have done, I can't say," McCain told the Deseret News. "I know she has a very strong, significant base. That's why all these candidates line up and ask for her endorsement."
McCain's pick of Palin, then a first-term Alaska governor, was seen as a "game changer" four years ago, just as presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney's choice of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan is now.
The Arizona senator, in Utah to attend a fundraiser and town hall meeting for 4th District congressional candidate Mia Love, said Ryan "is an excellent selection."
"Paul Ryan understands the issues that are most important to the American people right now — jobs and the economy," he said.
Asked if putting a "game changer" in the No. 2 spot on the Republican presidential ticket would be a winner this time, McCain said his loss to President Barack Obama wasn't Palin's fault.
"I don't think you can attribute our failure to Sarah Palin. She energized our party," he said. "She beat (Vice President) Joe Biden in the debate and then, of course, the stock market crashed."
McCain said the race was over when middle-class Americans saw their savings disappear overnight, not because of Palin, who ended up being widely seen as unprepared to be in a position where she could assume the presidency.
"I am convinced that Sarah Palin was a very strong attribute to our campaign, and I love her and admire her," McCain said, adding he had no second thoughts about naming her over Romney and other possible running mates.
Recently, McCain said he went with Palin over Romney "because we had a better candidate," a remark that some saw as a slap at Romney. Thursday, he said his pick was "not so much a matter of the qualities of the candidates or their credentials, but how that candidate fit best in the campaign we were trying to wage."
Romney had to provide more than 20 years of past tax returns to the McCain campaign as part of the vice presidential vetting process, but as a presidential candidate, has only committed to make two years of his returns public.
That prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to suggest that Romney may not have paid any taxes. Thursday, Romney said he’d paid at least 13 percent in taxes over each of the past 10 years — a comment that sparked a renewed call for the release of his returns as proof.
“He paid taxes,” McCain said, calling it “blatantly unfair” for Romney to be pressured to release more than two years of returns since that’s what previous presidential candidates have made public, including McCain himself.
“That’s the standard operating procedure,” McCain said. “This whole thing hasn’t got anything really to do with Mitt Romney’s tax returns. It has to do with diverting attention from what the president cannot defend, and that’s his record.”
But McCain did not rule out Romney reaching a point where it becomes politically expedient to turn over his tax returns.
“I have no idea,” McCain said. “I am confident that the overwhelming majority of the American people couldn't care less.”
And even though McCain was an outspoken critic of federal spending on the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, he said Americans also don’t care whether Romney continued to help run Bain Capital while he was head of the Games, another issue that’s surfaced during the campaign.
“I have not met a single American who says, ‘Hey, I want to know when Mitt Romney left Bain Capital to go and run the Olympics,’” he said. “To leave a very lucrative position, abandoning all that to run the Olympics, oh yeah, he’s really a terrible person for having done that. It’s crazy stuff.”
Utahns overwhelmingly backed Romney in the 2008 GOP presidential primary, but then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. bucked his party and endorsed McCain. But when Huntsman ran for president, McCain went with Romney.
McCain said he would support a future Huntsman bid. "Certainly I would. I think he's a very talented person who served as governor and as ambassador to China in outstanding fashion," he said. "I consider him a friend and I also admire his family."
The senator stopped short of saying Huntsman should have waited until 2016 to make a run at the White House.
"You know, it's hard to judge these things because when Barack Obama first announced, nobody thought he had any chance. But I think it's extremely difficult to go from being out of the United States for a period of time to come back and jump into a presidential campaign," McCain said. "But whether he should have done that or not, I leave that up to the judgement of Jon Huntsman."
At the town hall meeting for Love, held in the Cultural Celebration Center outdoor amphitheater, McCain told the audience that they had an opportunity to make history in November, by sending the first African-American Republican woman to Congress.
"That would be a wonderful thing, not only for Utah, but for the entire country," McCain said, predicting Love would become an "instant star" in Washington without forgetting "where she came from and who sent her there."
McCain and Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, fielded several questions, including from a woman concerned about losing Medicare benefits under Ryan's budget-cutting plans. But at the end of the hour-long event, Love raised the issue of her race.
"I'm going to address this," she said. "A lot of people would like to make this big hype about race. Saratoga Springs doesn't have a high bond rating because I wear a fabulous pair of high heels. It's not because I wear a fresh coat of makeup or have braids, that's why we've been able to balance our budgets and leave our city to being firm and stable financially. It's because of the solutions that we were able to bring to the table."
Love's campaign is attracting national attention. McCain is just the latest in a series of big names in the GOP traveling to Utah to help her raise money. Ryan held a fundraiser for her earlier this summer and Wednesday, Utahns paid as much as $10,000 each to attend events at Little America featuring U.S. House Speaker John Boehner. Next month, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is coming for a Love fundraiser.
McCain told the Deseret News he had met with Love twice in Washington. "We've had long conversations," he said.
Besides being the first black GOP woman in Congress, McCain said he liked Love's personal story of being raised by Haitian immigrants and that "she's incredibly articulate for the conservative values and principles we believe in."