Sarah & Todd Palin Alaska's Multitaskers

updated 09/22/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/22/2008 01:00AM

When the snow falls, Sarah and Todd Palin's married life resembles a well-oiled relay race. The governor's day begins at 4 a.m. to correspond with the opening of her satellite office in Washington, D.C.—and the conclusion of Todd's regular late-night snowmobile rides. While Sarah digests e-mails, newspapers and a breakfast of apples and wheat toast, Todd makes sure their daughters Bristol, 17, Willow, 14, and Piper, 7, prepare for school. By 7 a.m., Sarah, 44, is in her Volkswagen Jetta to make the 45-minute drive to her Anchorage office, dropping her girls at school en route if time permits. If not, carpool duty falls to Todd, 44, who oversees the kids' schedules throughout the day. Reunited for a dinner that either spouse might prepare ("She is a good cook," says family friend Steve Becker), Sarah catches the nightly news, then hits the sack at 10:30 p.m.—Todd's cue to hit the snowmobile trails.

But what if the governor is in Juneau for the state's three-month legislative season? Or Todd is competing in the Tesero Iron Dog snowmobile race, a weeklong event? Those sorts of questions buzzed from coast to coast last week as voters wondered how a woman with five children—one with special needs, another pregnant—can juggle such demanding family responsibilities against such a high-octane job. Her not-so-secret weapon: a low-key husband who seems to have no trouble putting her career first. "You just work it out," he told PEOPLE two months after the April birth of Trig, their son who has Down syndrome.

Last week, as both Palins ran ragged schedules and steered a wide berth around the media while Sarah prepared for an interview with ABC, they demonstrated that adaptability. While Sarah campaigned in the lower 48, Todd planned to disappear into Alaska's woods with oldest son Track, 19, for a hunting expedition before Track's Sept. 11 deployment to Iraq. Back in Alaska, Sarah's parents and two sisters looked after the Palin girls, who, as usual, helped feed, bathe and entertain 5-month-old Trig. Over the weekend, Sarah and Todd left the campaign trail for a few hours to celebrate his birthday and have a quiet dinner. "They have a great family network," says Scott Davis, Todd's racing partner. Sarah concurs: "I could not do my job without my family."

Each Palin sees qualities in the other that help keep their 20-year-old marriage strong even as Sarah's political career accelerates to warp speed. "She's low maintenance," Todd says of his wife. "She doesn't demand or require things." At the Beehive, the Wasilla hair salon where Sarah gets her brunette hair styled and colored with caramel and dark blonde highlights, she has a reputation for not throwing her governor title around. Though she prefers to do her own grocery and Christmas shopping, one intimate says that she ceded grocery runs to her husband and sister after fawning crowds made it "a nightmare to go with Sarah to get a gallon of milk."

Sarah admires Todd's even keel. "Calm, cool and collected" is how she describes the man who twice now has taken a leave from his hourly-wage oil production job on Alaska's North Slope to support her political career. Becker, who, like Todd, runs a summer fishing business, says, "He's there to support her."

And she him. During each of the past 14 years, Todd has spent nearly two months training up to five hours a day for the 2,000-mile Iron Dog marathon. "He wouldn't do it if the family wasn't behind him," says Davis. Sarah has always been at the finish line to greet him—just as she was right beside him on a snowmobile their very first date. Today, snowmobiling "is how they get away from it all," says Kaylene Johnson, author of the Palin biography Sarah. "They go to a friend's cabin, but it's off-road so they have to take snow machines."

As for the changes they'll face if Sarah becomes Vice President, Davis believes the Palins aren't thinking that far ahead. "It's been my observation that's how they have dealt with things," he says. For now, he and Todd are signed up for the 2009 Iron Dog. Whatever the November outcome, Becker predicts Todd will be in Alaska next summer, on his boat, fishing and nibbling on a favorite snack—Spam. "Sometimes he puts peanut butter on it," says Becker.

Whatever happens, the Palins seem primed to handle it. "It's amazing how time passes and it's easier to deal with the circumstances," Sarah told PEOPLE in June. Then, turning to her husband, she asked, "Don't you think, Todd?" "Mmm," he affirmed.

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