Nearly three weeks after arriving on the national scene, Sarah Palin is an undeniable political phenom.

She dominates discourse on cable news shows. She graces the covers of countless magazines, even those not prone to cover politics. Newspaper columns (including this one) dissect her endlessly.

Her star shines brightly on the Internet. Google users are 15 times more likely to run a search for Palin than for her Democratic counterpart, Joe Biden. Since Aug. 29, when Republican presidential nominee John McCain tabbed Palin as his runningmate, not a day has gone by in which more users searched for McCain than for her. Even the mighty Barack Obama, himself a longtime owner of the phenom tag, has taken a backseat to Palin power — since Aug. 29, Google searches for Palin have topped searches for Obama every single day. (In comparison, searches for John Edwards and Dick Cheney never sniffed the level s of those for George W. Bush and John Kerry in the fall of 2004).

Palin is so popular that McCain has taken the unusual step of appearing on the campaign trail alongside her. Conventional wisdom would say the two could cover more ground and meet more voters by going their separate ways, but the McCain-Palin-as-one act has proven to be too big of a hit to split up. Not to mention that it avoids the possibility of the veep outdrawing the presidential candidate.

Palin’s ascendency has produced panic in many Democratic quarters, to the point that many seem to have forgotten John McCain remains at the top of the Republican ticket. No longer does Hillary Clinton simply proclaim “No way, no how, no McCain.” Now she tells crowds in Ohio “No way, no how, no McCain and no Palin,” apparently sacrificing cadence in the interest of landing any jab she can at the fledgling superstar. Obama himself has found it necessary to talk extensively about the Alaska governor, on earmarks and other issues, something a presidential candidate would ordinarily leave to his surrogates.

Obama’s media supporters have been even more out of sorts. In a desperate attempt to tear the Alaska governor down, they’ve turned this election — at least as it stands in mid-September — into a veritable referendum on Sarah Palin. That’s not a winning strategy. She’s simply too popular.

On Sept. 2, Bob Herbert of the New York Times derided Palin as a “G.O.P. distraction…meant to shift attention away from the real issue of this campaign.” Yet even Herbert found the bait irresistible, as 10 days later he devoted his entire column not to “real issues” but to Palin and the “dimwittedness” that has propelled her.

The Gray Lady’s other columnists are equally gripped by Palin obsession. Frank Rich has spent his last two columns on Palin. Maureen Dowd her last five. None have dedicated any significant space to discussing Biden.

On the local level, the Capital Times’ John Nichols, who seemingly doubles as a news reporter when not writing the paper’s editorials, traveled all the way to Alaska to interview residents not satisfied with their governor. And he’s added two anti-Palin columns as part of his regular gig as an editorialist for the leftist rag.

To be sure, some of this Palin coverage has raised legitimate issues. Whether she has the requisite experience to be vice president after only two years as governor is a fair question, as is whether her foreign policy outlook is sufficiently nuanced.

Yet much of the talk, such as the Troopergate story, is overblown. And talk of her supposed lack of foreign policy knowledge, much of it stemming from an interview with ABC News’ Charlie Gibson, is nitpicky. (For Palin to ask Gibson for clarification on what he meant by “the Bush Doctrine” is hardly unreasonable. The Bush Doctrine could refer to spreading democracy as a counter to terrorism. Or it could mean the use of unilateral military action, i.e. not with the backing of the United Nations or others, to target regimes deemed a threat to American security, with an ancillary mission to spread democracy. Or it could mean treating regimes that harbor terrorists as terrorists themselves.)

Meanwhile, the anti-Palin talk distracts mightily from the Obama narrative. Supporters no longer extol his virtues; they just direct vitriol at Palin. This serves to rally conservatives while leaving voters unable to grasp the still-rough edges of his vision for the country. He says we are in “the most serious financial situation in generations.” Will his higher tax rates on the rich encourage growth? Will his higher taxes on capital gains buoy the stock market?

Vice presidents rarely make much of a difference in presidential elections. Lloyd Bentsen delivered one of the more memorable lines in debate history in 1988. It didn’t do Michael Dukakis any good.

Palin may be an exception. She is certainly a phenomenon. For that she can credit her legions of supporters, and increasingly, those most opposed to her. If their obsession with tearing her down doesn’t abate soon, they may well hand her, er, McCain, the election.

Ryan Masse ([email protected]) is a second-year law student.