BARACK WHO?

Republican presidential candidate John McCain shattered the afterglow of Democrat Barack Obama's acceptance speech early yesterday with the stunning announcement that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would be his running mate.

Palin is a popular 44-year-old conservative who was the mayor of the tiny town of Wasilla, until her 2006 election as governor. Her selection thrilled conservative Republicans, and she made a pitch to Hillary Clinton Democrats in her speech in Dayton, Ohio, yesterday, referring to the "determination and grace" of Clinton's presidential campaign.

McCain's surprise move set political heads spinning as they analyzed its potential impact.

"It's a good chess move," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "I'm not prepared to say it's a game changer - vice presidents almost never determine election results - but it does some positive things for McCain, including building some interest in a Republican convention in Labor Day week that might have been ignored."

A downside, Sabato and others noted, is that it's now harder for McCain to attack Obama as inexperienced. "McCain picked someone who's younger and has less experience [than Obama] to be a heartbeat away from a 72-year- old president," Sabato said.

Democrats pointed out that there were more people in the audience in Dayton yesterday than the population of the town she was mayor of just two years ago. There were 15,000 at the Dayton rally. Wasilla's population is 9,000.

Still, Palin made an impressive debut, speaking with confidence and clarity about her days as a "hockey mom," a community leader and a state official who fought corruption and wasteful spending.

Franklin & Marshall College pollster Terry Madonna said that Palin's personal story is an asset but that he would describe McCain's pick in three words.

"Risky, risky and risky," Madonna said. "We just don't know how she'll handle the next nine weeks of campaigning, dealing with all these complicated national and international issues, debating [Obama's running mate] Joe Biden, and having every word scrutinized by an aggressive press corps."

The greatest unanswered question is whether putting Palin on the ticket will bring many Clinton Democrats into the McCain column.

The Daily News reached five women who were Clinton primary-election supporters in a March poll, and none said Palin's candidacy would change their vote.

"If McCain thinks this ultra-conservative, lifelong member of the NRA is going to substitute for Hillary Clinton, he doesn't get it," said Nikki Nordenberg of Pittsburgh. "To him, I guess women are all interchangeable. He assumed people would vote for her just because she's a woman."

Marie Usler, a Clinton Democrat from Northeast Philadelphia, loved McCain's pick and Palin's speech. "She's a mother, she's young, she knows where she's been and what she's doing, and her son's in the [Iraq] war," Usler said. Usler said she's for McCain, but was won over by McCain before Palin joined the ticket.

Sabato said he believes that Palin will attract Clinton supporters.

"The question is how many," he said. "She's pro-life, anti-gun control, really the ideological opposite of Hillary. I'm not sure how many nonideological Clinton voters there are to attract."

Pennsylvania Republican Party chairman Rob Gleason said Palin's gender appeal will be considerable.

"One of our weak points has been working moms, stay-at- home moms, soccer moms," Gleason said. "I think she's going to really connect with people in the four counties surrounding Philadelphia. I'm hopeful that she'll spend a lot of time in the Philadelphia suburbs doing retail campaigning."

Some analysts noted that the conventional political wisdom is that it's risky for a male candidate to attack a woman, suggesting that the choice of Palin might make Biden less aggressive and increase Hillary Clinton's value as a campaigner this fall.

Clinton hailed Palin's "historic nomination" in a statement released yesterday, adding that while Republican policies "would take America in the wrong direction, Governor Palin will add an important new voice to the debate." *

Staff writer Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.