Gov. Sarah Palin returned to the national stage in a big way this past week, rocketing back into the national consciousness with her David Letterman feud, slams on the Obama administration and drama with national Republican leaders.
While Palin won't say if she is running for national office, there is no shortage of people offering advice and declaring her to be an inspiration or making her a punch line. Her trip to the Lower 48 over the past week has the country again fascinated.
The passion of her supporters hasn't flagged a bit since last year's presidential election, burning far hotter than that of any other Republican presidential hopeful. They see her as the future of the party, an antidote to President Barack Obama. Yet she remains highly controversial and attracts intense criticism from non-supporters.
"She is who people are talking about," said Matthew Dowd, a former top strategist for George W. Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "That trip demonstrated that whatever people's feelings about her, she is a point of conversation. So depending upon her, she has the potential to emerge as a leader of the Republican Party."
For that to happen, though, Dowd thinks Palin needs to move beyond celebrity. She can do that, he said, by advancing a substantive values argument in her upcoming book. Another option, he suggested, would be to host an academic forum on economics in which she puts forth her own opinions. She's bright and charismatic but needs to prove substance, he said.
"She's got to get back in the news sections and out of the style sections and People magazine coverage," he said.
James Carville, the national Democratic strategist, said he wouldn't mind seeing Palin's profile grow.
"Both as a Democrat and just as a person who enjoys being entertained, I can't get enough of her. I taught a class on the 2008 election at Tulane, and I had to get the students to stop me from talking about her because it was just too compelling. She doesn't always just sit on the edge of the cliff, she actually falls off it sometimes," he said.
Carville said he doesn't think Palin is an act. "I think the depths of her beliefs are not in doubt, it's how curious and competent she is where the real doubt is," he said. "And it's not just policy. If it's 'no drama Obama,' drama just follows her around."
There's no disputing Palin's power to draw cheering crowds in the Lower 48. An estimated 20,000 people turned out to see her lead a parade in Auburn, N.Y., last weekend. She was featured prominently in interviews on Fox News Channel, CNN and NBC.
But as in the presidential campaign, Palin continues to be very polarizing. On the national level, many seem to either love her or deeply dislike her. Her supporters will hear a Palin speech or interview and declare her brilliantly in touch with regular Americans and their values. Critics dismiss her as not being presidential material -- and worse.
"She has crossed the line from political figure into celebritydom," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "But she's also demonstrated how polarizing and controversial she is, even with the Republican leadership."
Cheri Jacobus, a Washington, D.C., Republican strategist, said Palin has taken an unfair beating, one that she asserts would not have happened to a male politician.
"The only reasons she is polarizing is because the Democrats and the media demonized her so much that they made her a polarizing figure," said Jacobus (who is not related to the former Alaska Republican Party activist with the same name).
Jacobus said Palin inspires a growing group of enthusiastic activist conservative Republicans around the country, the kind of people who went to the "tea party" events.
Palin is a star whether she decides to run for president in 2012, bide her time until 2016, or take another path, she said
"The woman is worth her weight in gold in terms of fundraising," she said. "Whether it's 2012 or beyond, or she just wants to be the kingmaker and make buckets of money for the party, she really has a wide berth to work with."
What Palin needs now is to "set up a professional operation at the staff level," Jacobus said.
There was drama last week over whether Palin would attend a major congressional fundraising dinner after a scheduling spat with Republican leaders.
Most controversial was Palin's fight with Letterman over jokes involving her daughter. Letterman made the initial comments on Monday night's show. It was still making headlines Saturday, overshadowing the news, at least on the national level, that the oil giant Exxon Mobil has joined in the project she's pushing to build a natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48.
Ken Sunshine, a veteran New York public relations executive, suggested to the Washington Post that the fight could turn out to be good for both Palin and Letterman.
"Letterman is a master of this, and he's milking it for all it's worth," Sunshine said, citing similar ratings-boosting "feuds" that Letterman has engaged in with Sen. John McCain and Oprah Winfrey. "But people often underestimate (Palin) and underestimate her following. She's exploiting this very smartly. She's speaking to her core base that feels maligned. ... It's extraordinary that she can bring this off."
"Poor Mitt Romney. He's probably wondering, 'Where do I get some of this?' "
IDEOLOGICAL OR PRAGMATIC?
Palin also ripped Obama on her trip, saying his policies since taking office were sending the nation toward socialism. She told Fox News host Sean Hannity she's not happy oil prices are rising because "the fewer dollars that the state of Alaska government has, the fewer dollars we spend, and that's good for our families and the for the private sector."
John Bitney, a high school classmate of Palin's who was a political adviser on her 2006 campaign for governor, said he sees parallels now with Palin's past runs for office.
"It's very similar to her two previous runs for office in that she starts off working the more conservative right wing base to establish herself and build a network, an activist base involved in her campaign," he said. "Once you get established as a viable candidate, you have to then begin to broaden your message to win. You just can't stay stuck over on that end of the spectrum."
Is Palin more ideological or pragmatic as a campaigner?
"Going back to the mayor's race, going back to the governor's race, going back to the city council and going back to the Wasilla High basketball court, she likes to win," said Bitney, who worked in the governor's office as legislative director after her election. He had a split with Palin and is now an aide to Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez.
Palin was not considered an especially partisan governor before she was chosen as the vice presidential nominee, and often got along better with the Democrats in the Legislature than the Republicans. Bitney noted that she didn't push social conservative issues when he worked for her during her first year as governor. She vetoed a bill that sought to block the state from giving public employee benefits like health insurance to same-sex couples, saying it was unconstitutional.
OPINIONS VARY ON HER CHANCES
Dowd, the former Bush and Schwarzenegger adviser, believes Palin was mishandled and inexperienced when she ran for vice president last year and was a drag on the ticket. But she can rebound, he said, offering the example of Hillary Clinton, a polarizing figure who recast her image and almost became president.
"It takes time, though, and Governor Palin has to be careful about being in too much of a hurry," he said.
The University of Virginia's Sabato said Palin has clearly made a decision to stoke the Republican Party's base and worry later about broader appeal. That is not a bad strategy, he said, and the general election will be more about Obama's popularity at the time than anything else. But he is doubtful that Palin could pull it off.
"Yes, there are many very conservative GOP base voters who would cast a ballot for her, but that's not enough, even for the nomination. She would have to convince Republican activists that she could actually win in November. And she may deserve a Nobel Prize if she can accomplishment that," Sabato said.
Palin supporters vigorously disagree with that kind of talk. They're committed to promoting her, with their energy seeming to only grow in the months since the November election.
Greg Mueller, a national Republican consultant, said Palin has a huge grass-roots network and will have no problem raising money.
He said Palin is a "softer version of Margaret Thatcher." She can unite the social, limited-government and foreign policy conservatives, he said, and could be just what the voters are looking for after they are disillusioned with the Obama years.
"The more she is attacked by the Washington establishment and elite media and people like David Letterman, the more people are going to come out and support her," he said.
He suggested Palin follow a Ronald Reagan model, leaving Alaska when appropriate, giving speeches in smaller towns and talking to local press.
"Katie Couric doesn't have a lot of fans in Des Moines, Iowa, and Manchester, New Hampshire," Mueller said. "Sarah Palin does."
Read Sean Cockerham on our Alaska Politics blog (adn.com/alaskapolitics) or call him at 257-4344.
By SEAN COCKERHAM