Over the past six weeks, Sarah Palin has morphed on the national campaign trail from bipartisan small state governor to a conservative lightning rod. Even if she doesn't win the vice presidency, her political career will never be the same.
Palin has always attracted controversy, but she is now a far more polarizing figure, both in Alaska as well as nationally, than before her nomination. If she returns, the Republican governor will face former Democratic allies furious at her campaign attacks. She will also face lawmakers from both parties ticked off at her handling of the so-called Troopergate investigation and her recent false assertions that the investigator's report cleared her, according to interviews with a number of lawmakers and others who watch Alaska politics.
"We've seen her do and say things that are shocking to us, so it's going to be different, to put it mildly," said Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula, the House minority leader. "We have a whole different way of looking at her."
But Palin would also return as a national figure who excited huge crowds across the nation and is already being described as a potential presidential candidate four years from now. She continues to enjoy high approval ratings among Alaskans, and she would come back a seasoned campaigner with new political chops.
"The main thing is, if she comes back as governor and McCain didn't win, I do not think she'll be blamed for it all. She won't come back as a loser," said Anchorage political consultant and pollster Dave Dittman. "She'd come back, I think as a winner, or as a person who if McCain had paid more attention to her or followed her lead could have been successful. I think she'd come back strong."
The McCain-Palin campaign is down in the polls, but nearly three weeks remain until election day. In the meantime, her unexpected rise to the national stage and her new political persona has Alaskans speculating about what happens if she doesn't win and comes back as governor.
"It's a question on everybody's mind," said Mike Hawker, a Republican state representative from Anchorage.
Gregg Erickson, former publisher of a publication on state government who has watched Alaska politics for decades, predicted a rougher road for Palin than in the past.
"I think things will be very, very different for her if she comes back," Erickson said. "She's done some things as vice-presidential candidate that are not favorable for her role as governor, her ability to govern."
Dittman agreed that a returning Palin would face a more aggressive Legislature than before her turn on the national stage, one that probably wouldn't be as intimidated by her as before.
Palin has always been much more popular with the public than with legislators. Back when pollsters measured her approval rating among Alaskans in the 80 percent range, it was tough for legislators to resist her. Her Alaska approval ratings have dropped since her nomination to as low as 62 percent, at least according to some pollsters. That's still an enviable approval rating.
The strength of the opposition, Erickson said, would depend on whether she slid any more after the election was over.
A NEW PALIN?
Palin foes and allies agree she's likely to seek another national office if she doesn't win the vice presidency. While she has been ridiculed by some, she has a devoted base of supporters and there's speculation a U.S. Senate run could be in her future, or even a presidential bid the next time the Republican nomination comes open.
North Pole Republican state Rep. John Coghill said if Palin returns to Alaska as governor, there will always be the question of whether her decisions are being made for the good of the state or to position herself for national office.
"If she comes back then she's going to have to be very clear of what her motives are in her decisions," Coghill said.
Coghill said, overall, he'd expect a returning Palin to be more experienced and a little savvier. He said Palin would have national horsepower that she could use to advance Alaska's interests. He said it would put Alaska in a "nice, favored position."
But Juneau Democratic Sen. Kim Elton suggested in his newsletter this week that Palin's broadside about Barack Obama "palling around with terrorists" and other one-liners from rallies have potential blowback for Alaska if Obama is elected and Palin has to work with the Democratic administration.
It's clear that Palin's relationship with Alaska Democrats is in deep freeze. That's a turnaround from pre-nomination days, when Palin's fiercest critics in the Legislature were Republicans and she relied on Democrats to get through her two biggest bills -- a tax increase on oil companies and a license for a Canadian firm to pursue a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to the Lower 48.
Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski, one of the legislators who allied with her on those big issues in Juneau, said he "barely recognizes" the current Palin.
"It's disappointing to see her bashing Democrats when her main political successes would never have passed without significant support from Democrats," he said.
Anchorage Republican Hawker said Palin's frostier relationship with the Democrats could have the effect of helping some Republican legislators warm up to her who weren't Palin fans before. Hawker said Palin might also now realize that "just because you are a Republican in Alaska does not make you an evil person."
Many Alaska Republican legislators have complained Palin has been too broad during her time as governor in suggesting that the state's politics are corrupt.
Kenai Republican Rep. Mike Chenault, considered to be a potential speaker of the state House when the Legislature convenes in January, said it remains to be seen how Palin's new political persona plays with Republican lawmakers.
"It's hard to say which if any Republicans would change their position on the governor based upon either her running for vice president or her handling of Troopergate," Chenault said.
There's resentment among some legislators of both parties for how Palin handled the Legislature's investigation into her dismissal of her public safety commissioner and if she improperly pressured him to fire a state trooper once married to her sister.
The governor's surrogates bashed the Alaska Democratic legislators leading the investigation, who were some of her biggest allies on oil and gas issues, saying they were Obama fans who made their bias clear. The investigation, though, was authorized by unanimous vote of the bipartisan Legislative Council, and some Republicans bristled at Palin's refusal to cooperate in it as well as her attorney general's failed challenge of the Legislature's subpoenas.
Steve Branchflower, the investigator hired by the Legislative Council, released his report on Friday concluding that Palin abused her power and broke state ethics law in pressing for the trooper to be fired. But Palin's response to the report was to say that she was vindicated and "I'm very, very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing ... any hint of any kind of unethical activity there."
The report said Palin's removal of her commissioner, Walt Monegan, was not solely about his refusal to fire the state trooper but it was likely a contributing factor. Palin has the right to dismiss a commissioner for any reason she likes.
Legislators are far from united in their reaction to the report, with some Republicans agreeing with Palin it was a political circus. There's no sign lawmakers are planning to take any formal action against Palin. But hard feelings abound.
"Those people who don't believe and don't support the governor, I think the events will perhaps exacerbate their outrage," said Hawker, the Anchorage Republican. Likewise, he said, Palin supporters are likely to "express their moral outrage at what they feel is a persecution of the governor."
If she comes back as governor, Hawker said, "It will be one of her immediate challenges to get through, rebuilding fences, rebuilding trust. Those issues will be there with both the Democrats and the Republicans."
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.
Presidential debate tonight
The third and last debate between presidential candidates Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama is scheduled to air from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. today on all major news networks.