For two months she basked -- and sizzled -- in the world's hottest celebrity spotlight. Now Sarah Palin has come home to begin the last two years of her term as governor of Alaska.
Everything has changed: Palin's personal horizon, her relations with the state's other elected officials, the public's sense of who she is.
Palin returned to her office Friday amid a brutal crossfire between detractors and defenders in the McCain camp. At the same time, however, a new national poll said 64 percent of Republicans consider her their top choice to run for president in 2012.
Does Palin really want to run for president in four years? And if she does, would it be best to find a way to the U.S. Senate, where she could acquire some of the big-time political and foreign-policy luster lacking in her first national campaign?
Or should she run again for governor in 2010, maintaining her "Washington-outsider" status by taking what one Republican strategist calls "the Hillary Clinton model," rolling up her sleeves and re-establishing herself as a local hero?
So many questions, so many strategic choices, so many complications that didn't exist a few short months ago.
What will all this mean to Alaska?
Time to take a deep breath and consider some of the key challenges that lie ahead for Sarah Palin.
1 Federal relations
Gov. Palin spent the last two months questioning the patriotism of the new president. She accused him of hanging out with terrorists. Palin now says it was just the rough-and-tumble of party politics. But how is that going to play when she goes to Washington looking for help with gas line construction or military base protection or exemption from environmental rules?
Is it going to be any better when she goes to Congress? Democrats may not want to polish the star of a future Republican rival. And Alaska's veteran Republicans, assuming they make it back, are weakened by scandal and not on the best terms with Palin. The governor surprised Young when she endorsed his primary rival this year, and she called for Stevens to resign. Awkward.
Beyond that, Palin campaigned with Sen. John McCain as the scourge of earmarks, and Young and Stevens are the earmarking champs. Everybody has heard by now of our Permanent Fund and those $1,200 checks. Remember when Palin said if Alaskans want to build those bridges, we'd pay for them ourselves?
2 Eternal suspicion
For the rest of her career in Alaska, every move Palin makes will be second-guessed for ulterior motives. Is she taking on this or that priority because it's good for the state or because it looks good on her resume?
If she travels to New Hampshire to meet with Republicans, is the state paying for her long-distance calls home? Who decided to put the governor's photo on that tourism brochure? Imagine the snarkiness that will erupt if she flies off to meet industrialists in China or oil ministers in Geneva (never mind that Frank Murkowski spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel his last two years as governor and was gone 112 days over that time).
Alaskans might choose to shrug off some of Palin's future efforts as legitimate state business. But the national press and bloggers, keeping Alaska under close surveillance, will be jostling one another for fresh angles.
3 Political seasoning
Anonymous diva-bashing aside, it was apparent that Palin would benefit from wider experience if she intends to move on in the political world. Her strongly positive rating from Republicans in the new polls is balanced by strong negatives from Democrats and independent voters. For Palin, the challenge will be how to find that experience and surround herself with smart people who can help -- without selling Alaska short in the process.
Republicans are predicting Palin will be the party's biggest fundraiser for the next two years. But former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, for example, drew intense criticism for abandoning his home state (he was gone for 219 days his last year) as he ramped up his presidential race in 2006.
"We'll take advantage of the opportunities to keep on spreading that pro-Alaska message all across the nation," Palin said Friday.
For Palin's skeptical critics, this seasoning will take more than a few graduate-level seminars. They say her biggest challenge may be summoning a curiosity about the wider world that hasn't been evident in her public life before this year.
On the other hand, her cheering supporters, here and in the Lower 48, seem ecstatic with the image she projected -- and that could present a challenge of its own. Will they press her now to take the lead in social-conservative causes such as abortion restrictions, which didn't appear to be part of her agenda in her first two years in office?
4 The Legislature
Palin's two-year record was much dissected during the presidential campaign. Some Alaska lawmakers complained she was disengaged at times. Democratic allies who helped with her priorities are now unhappy with her new national partisanship and the campaign's meddling in Troopergate. Her unhappiest critics have been Republicans who resented how the "maverick reformer" painted dissenters as part of the "good old boy" network.
Back in Juneau, she's likely to face a new source of friction: budget-cutting tensions due to declining oil revenues. When she starts converting her fiscal-conservative rhetoric into action, opponents may accuse her of preening for voters in North Carolina or Iowa (see Challenge 2).
Palin has her admirers in the Legislature, to be sure. And there's a post-election weariness in the air, with legislators saying they'd like to make a fresh start. Watch to see how they handle fallout from the Troopergate investigations come January. At one point there was talk of contempt charges over refusal to honor legislative subpoenas. Attorney General Talis Colberg was being sized up for a hot seat for his handling of the governor's defense while she was away campaigning. They could also let it go and move on.
Palin also has work to do with some of her constituents. Big anti-Palin rallies in Anchorage during the campaign were unprecedented -- Frank Murkowski never stirred that kind of passion. Coming home to vote in a Carhartts jacket shows she's thinking along those lines. (Or was she buffing her small-town, anti-fashion image for a national crowd? More second-guessing.)
5 The natural gas pipeline
With the nation sliding into recession and state oil revenues plunging, the gas line seems more important than ever to Alaska. Crossing the next big pre-construction hurdles would give Palin a big achievement to trumpet.
But there are plenty of perils in the next two years. The looming challenge involves the so-called "open season" -- persuading the oil companies, through tax incentives, legal pressure or superior poker strategy, to commit to ship their gas reserves through the line.
Meanwhile the state will seek help from the Obama administration on rights of way and federal loan guarantees. Palin's pitch: that getting gas to the Lower 48 will lead the nation away from oil and provide a bridge to a new era of alternative energy sources. Obama did say during the presidential race he supports getting the gas line built.
While she's working on energy, Palin also faces the challenge of the warming Arctic and the rural energy crisis. Alaska's governor was described during the campaign as one of the nation's leading experts in energy security, so it won't do to have rural villagers shivering in the dark. There's been lots of talk about alternative energy projects, and money has been committed -- but will there be any new kilowatts generated in the next two years of Palin's leadership?
6 Family and friends
OK, the kids will remain off limits, for the most part. But finding time for her growing family remains a significant challenge for Palin, alongside her work for the state and her new national prominence.
Todd Palin's role in the administration has been subjected to great scrutiny in the past two months, but there don't seem to be any new lines yet defining the first gentleman's responsibilities.
Then there are the friends, from Mat-Su and elsewhere. One of the more intriguing aspects of Palin's first two years was her peopling the administration with figures from outside the usual circles of state government and industry. Why the comfort zone? It was frequently reported, during the campaign, that Palin did not respond well to challenge and disagreement. Like many of the charges leveled in the past two months, this one was allowed to sit there and fester, with Palin too busy or too muzzled to respond.
Watch to see if the circle of friends grows, and if some of the new administration faces are party refugees from the Lower 48.
7 The messes
Local and national media have been rummaging through Palin's closet while she's been gone. Their unfinished work litters the landscape.
Troopergate, state business on private e-mail accounts, "boxes and boxes" of gifts, per diem payments for nights in Wasilla, travel costs of the kids. How much of this is taxable income? The loan of wardrobe for the duration of the campaign -- is that a taxable gift?
All this will take time to sort out -- beginning with Troopergate, where two investigative reports reached starkly different conclusions.
The news media. A presidential campaign trying to stay on-message is not the kind of "open and transparent" environment Palin pledged for her own administration. And she's admitted disappointment about her treatment by the media during the national campaign. For Palin and the press, is there any turning back?
Perhaps. On Friday, her first day back on the job in Anchorage, Palin was talkative when she found the local and national press corps camped out in her front office. Finally, she had a chance to respond to critics and, in her view, correct the record on a few matters. She said she understood that she needs to talk to Alaskans through the press.
"I want to be able to help also Americans to know that they can trust their media," Palin said.
Reporters who recall her old accessibility will want to hear what it was really like on the campaign trail. They want to get past the talking points and find out not just what she thinks about the issues, but how she thinks about them.
Deciding just how open and transparent she wants to be -- now that she's a national figure under intense scrutiny -- is yet another challenge for Palin.
Reporter Tom Kizzia has reported on Alaska politics since the 1980s and helped cover Palin's campaign for governor in 2006. adn.com/palin