ANCHORAGE - Can Sarah Palin go home again?
In the 68 days since Alaska's governor began her run for vice president, things have changed on the home front. Some of her former allies are fuming, and former enemies are lying in wait. Public perceptions of the governor have also changed. Has the governor changed as well?
Questions about Palin's future began to circulate at Alaska's Election Central on Tuesday night almost as soon as the national election results came in.
Palin is expected to arrive in Alaska sometime today in a campaign plane. Will she be the old Palin, a populist who worked with Democrats to achieve victories in the Legislature, or the sharp partisan from the national campaign?
At an Alaska Obama gathering Tuesday night, some celebrants said they were disappointed by the new Palin they saw in the campaign.
"All the alliances she used to get things done have been shattered," said Kate Troll, executive director of the Alaska Conservation Alliance. "She comes back to unknown territory."
But some Republican legislators who have backed Palin in the past said they thought she could resume her leadership style now that she was back to her old job. Her support was built around issues, not party loyalty, said Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer.
"If she takes the same course her next two years and picks issues with broad consensus, it won't change at all," Seaton said.
Feelings get raw in campaigns and then everyone gets back to work, said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, who directed the Legislature's Troopergate inquiry. He said he's more worried about Palin's future relations with the federal government, whose help is needed on loan guarantees and rights of way to get the gas pipeline built.
"I hope the new president has a magnanimous soul," French said.
Even more imponderable are questions about Palin's future priorities. Will she try to repair her old relationships, or continue as the warrior cheered by a national conservative base? Will her social-conservative allies in Alaska sit quietly on the sidelines, as they did during the first two years of her term? Will Palin be looking ahead at a national race in 2012, or at another term as governor? Or perhaps a run for U.S. Senate? And how will those ambitions affect the choices she makes in the near term?
"I hope nobody advises her to pick up the divisive issues," said state Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage.
"I think she just has to be Sarah," said Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage.
Palin has given no hints. Her chief spokesman in the governor's office, Bill McAllister, said her aggressive role in the presidential campaign reflected the job she was given, not a change of character.
"It's like a diamond with multiple facets," McAllister said. He predicted a return to the nonpartisan governing approach of her first two years. McAllister noted that Democrats last week came forward to defend the natural gas pipeline deal they worked out with Palin against criticism in the national press.
"We took that as an encouraging sign, that Democrats came forward after all the bad blood," McAllister said.
In Wasilla to vote on Tuesday, Palin sounded like the old governor when asked by a reporter about her future role nationally.
"You know, if there is a role in national politics it won't be so much partisan," Palin said. "My efforts have always been here in the state of Alaska to get everybody to unite and work together to progress this state ... it certainly would be a uniter type of role."
Still, there are some messes to clean up.
For starters, there's Troopergate. Palin has to be happy with the vindication from the Personnel Board investigation, which contradicted a similar investigation made by an investigator hired by lawmakers into her firing of former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan. But questions about the conflicting sworn testimonies of Palin and Monegan remain to be sorted out.
Moreover, attacks by the McCain campaign's "Truth Squad" against legislators involved in the Troopergate investigation have left a bad taste among Democrats, who were allied with Palin on important oil and gas priorities of her first two years.
Other matters have come up as well. Palin's two months in the national media spotlight raised questions about some of her activities as governor - in particular, her charging the state $17,000 in per diem payments for nights she stayed in her Wasilla home, and $21,000 for her children's travel.
No new policies have been set for those practices, McAllister said Tuesday. He stressed that the reimbursements were legal.
Other controversies lingering from the campaign include questions about gifts Palin received as governor and the use of private e-mail accounts to do state business. The state also still faces scores of time-consuming public-records requests for internal documents from media and the public.
Palin also returns to a different financial situation. The worldwide financial crash that, by some accounts, helped sink the McCain-Palin campaign has also wreaked havoc on next year's state budget outlook. The budgets of Palin's first two years were buoyed by high oil revenues and lots of money for construction projects, but oil has plummeted from a high of $144 a barrel last summer to $67.43 on Tuesday.
Last year's budget was built to break even with oil at $75 a barrel, state officials have said. If the price stays down, the state will have to dip into savings and feel new pressures to cut spending.
One question, at least, can now be answered.
When Palin was chosen to make the national run, questions arose quickly about how the state would function in her absence. The answer seems to have been: just fine. The past two months were, as administration officials predicted, the slow time of the year - with vetoes of last year's legislation over and preparation of next year's budget just starting.
Palin, her BlackBerry always at hand, stayed in almost daily contact with her chief of staff, and Kris Perry, a top aide and longtime friend, traveled with Palin to keep up with state business, McAllister said.
Modern communications technology made a big difference. Compare Palin's ties to those of Gov. Jay Hammond, who in the last two years of his term spent six weeks a year at his remote Lake Clark homestead, according to his former chief of staff, Jerry Reinwand.
Hammond kept in touch with Juneau via a radio phone that often had atmospheric interference, Reinwand said. At times, the only way to reach the governor was to call a pilot in the village of Port Alsworth, who would travel to the Hammond homestead by floatplane or boat to fetch the governor back to the phone.