WASHINGTON -- In the hours leading up to the U.S. Senate's confirmation of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services, the president's final Cabinet pick had a passive but potent opponent: fellow governor Sarah Palin.
The Republican Alaska governor didn't outright oppose Sebelius, a Democrat whose duties will include overhauling the country's health care system and overseeing the response to swine flu.
But Palin also said nothing while her supporters on Team Sarah, a Web site affiliated with an anti-abortion group, worked the phones in an effort to derail Sebelius' nomination because she favors abortion rights. The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Sebelius in a 65-31 vote.
Team Sarah -- primarily a social networking site -- is overseen by the Susan B. Anthony List, which aims to elect women to office who oppose abortion, including Palin. Team Sarah, which came together to support Palin's Republican vice presidential bid, has no formal connection to the governor.
Palin's office in Alaska didn't respond when asked whether the governor supported Team Sarah's efforts to derail Sebelius' nomination. Pam Pryor, a spokeswoman for Palin's political action committee, SarahPAC, wouldn't elaborate, either, other than to say that Team Sarah's anti-abortion stance parallels Palin's own views.
"It's an unfair assumption to say that because of who she is, she has to answer everything that's done in her name," Pryor said.
Sebelius also drew opposition from the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, the Susan B. Anthony List and the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele. Both Steele and Palin spoke earlier this month at an anti-abortion banquet in Indiana. Last week, Steele called on President Barack Obama to withdraw Sebelius' nomination until she clarified her stance on abortion. Sebelius herself last week vetoed a bill that would have rewritten Kansas' restrictions on late-term abortions.
Palin's time as a vice-presidential candidate last year grew a formidable online army of supportive blogs, Web sites and even an Internet radio station. The organizations have expressed unabashed support for Palin, but they've also used the governor's fame to shine the light on their own causes and raise money for their own goals. (These are different from the authorized Palin sites: her Facebook page, which now has more than 541,000 followers, and SarahPAC, which is set up to collect donations.)
In one sense, it's a ready-made online army for Palin to muster up if she so chooses. So far, she has not. The flip side is that Palin has no control over the actions of the online communities formed to support her.
"You cannot believe the number of Web sites," Pryor said. "What about Sarah Palin radio, what the heck is that? She was a political phenom and people have been trying to capitalize on that and make a lot of political hay. She turns people's heads politically, and they're wanting to glom onto that."
It's not clear how aware Palin is of the potential of her online army. Team Sarah has nearly 70,000 members. And one pro-Palin Web site, Conservatives4palin.com, has an active following that is seeing upward of 5,000 visitors a day.
One of the Conservatives4Palin's main contributors, Rebecca Mansour of Los Angeles, said that the site's aim is to promote Palin in whatever it is she does -- whether it's run for president or simply for re-election as Alaska governor in 2010.
"People like Sarah Palin are not supposed to reach positions of authority in our country," Mansour said. "It just doesn't happen, usually, that way. In order for her to advance on the national level, should she pursue that, it will take people like us to step forward and to do this, as a labor of love, as a patriotic thing for our country."
To that end, the main two links on Conservatives4Palin.com are to Web sites where Palin supporters can donate to either her legal expense fund, the Alaska Fund Trust, or her political action committee, SarahPAC. In recent days, the company that handled SarahPAC's Web site and processed online donations split with Palin. SarahPAC on Tuesday sent out an e-mail pointing supporters to her legal expense fund Web site. That fund was established last week to help Palin pay off more than a half million dollars in legal debts accumulated mostly in defending ethics complaints filed against her.
Mansour said she has no idea whether Palin knows of the existence of Conservatives4Palin.com.
"She has nothing at all, whatsoever, to do with any of what we're doing here, that's what's rather funny about it," Mansour said. "We have no idea if she knows we exist. We hope she does, but we have no idea. We don't take our cues from her. We interpret what we see as happening. We just speculate."
As for Team Sarah, Palin has "praised it and thanks people" for their work on it, said Marjorie Dannenfelser, who heads up the Web site's parent organization, the Susan B. Anthony List. Dannenfelser said she believes Palin wouldn't have hesitated to let them know "if she ever thought there was a problem."
"Think of it as the closest thing to a fan club that any political officeholder has ever had," Dannenfelser said. "A fan club that's highly motivated by the same issues that Sarah Palin is. Their one goal is to promote and help her. If they thought in any way shape or form that what they were doing was hurting her, they would stop immediately."
Last week, Team Sarah called on its members to phone the Senate Finance Committee to voice their objections to Sebelius. An estimated 40 people called in opposing Sebelius' nomination; it's not clear whether all of the callers were affiliated with Team Sarah. But twice as many people called in supporting the Kansas governor after word of the Team Sarah effort was posted on the left-leaning Huffington Post
Monday, Team Sarah sent out an action alert to its members, asking them to call the office of Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, and urge him to vote against Sebelius' confirmation.
The office logged about 750 calls from Kansans opposing Sebelius' nomination, said Brian Hart, Brownback's spokesman. About a dozen identified themselves as being connected to Team Sarah - Brownback's office did not log the number of calls from people outside of Kansas. Brownback, an avowed opponent of abortion, voted for his fellow Kansan.