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Palin's star has faded but influence persists

Stephanie Mccrummen
J. Scott Applewhite / The Associated Press

At a conference of conservative activists last week, there were stacks of Sarah Palin books and Sarah Palin posters. A special screening of a film about Palin was planned. And after skipping the gathering for four years, Palin herself had agreed at last to give the keynote address.

Having traveled from Buffalo, N.Y., Jason Benner was there to see the one who made his heart soar.

"Wayne LaPierre," he said with gusto, referring to the head of the National Rifle Association. He named the rest of his top five speakers -- Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul -- and then paused.

"Who else ... ?" he said, looking across the lobby where Palin's face smiled out from book covers. "I thought of a fifth! Daniel Hannan," he said, referring to a British member of the European parliament. "He's amazing."

It was hardly that Benner didn't like Palin; he really did. But like one half of a couple that wishes to remain friends for life, he had moved on.

The response reflects how Palin's star has traveled from a central place in the galaxy of conservative politics to a more nebulous, quasi-pop culture, quasi-political realm that is the dwelling place of figures such as Donald Trump.

It is a shift that many conservatives believe does not necessarily diminish Palin's political influence. They note that she can still grab headlines and channel grass-roots frustration, as she did recently by urging South Carolina primary voters to back Newt Gingrich, saying "you gotta rage against the machine." Many say Palin could shake up the primary if she endorses a candidate, or speaks out directly against tenuous front-runner Mitt Romney.

Others, though, say that with her stint on reality TV, her contract with Fox News and what many considered a disingenuous flirtation with running for president, Palin has permanently undermined her value to political causes.

To review Palin's trajectory so far: In four years, she has gone from Alaska governor to 2008 vice presidential nominee to soaring popularity and scathing ridicule. After resigning as governor amid ethics charges and legal bills, she wrote her political biography, joined Fox and landed "Sarah Palin's Alaska," a TV show in which she fished, bear-watched and otherwise gleefully erased the already-blurred line between politics and entertainment.

Palin re-emerged as a political force in the 2010 mid-term elections, with roughly half of her 64 endorsements winning, a record that included impressive victories and spectacular failures. Last year, she toyed with running for president, making a speech in Iowa and touring New Hampshire before disappointing her followers. And last month, Palin waded into the fray of the GOP primary, raising questions about whether she is wielding influence or grasping for it.

Then came last week's conference, called CPAC, an annual rally for the conservative movement. Palin had turned it down for years. This time, though, she not only agreed to speak but also appeared to be taking it especially seriously.

In a rare nod to protocol for a woman best known for going rogue, she flew in early to prepare, according to conference organizers. She practiced her speech. She met privately with conference leaders, who had picked her to close the event, a position held in years past by talk radio host Rush Limbaugh and Rep. Allen West, R-Fla.

Few attendees seemed willing to begrudge Palin for cashing in on her status, and many cheered her for it. Catherine McDonald compared Palin to the former Fox commentator Glenn Beck -- "maybe not quite to that level," she modified -- except that Palin had the experience of being "used by the media."

"But now she's turning the game on them," McDonald said. "She knows how to use them back. She is someone who deserves a role, and we are giving it to her."

And Palin was taking it.

On the day of her keynote, the hotel halls were slightly emptier, and workers were starting to fold up tables. People with red lanyards were hailing taxis for the airport as a light snow fell.

But there was still a good crowd, and behind the closed doors of the Virginia Room, a cheer rang out at a woman of the year luncheon. A few minutes later, Palin walked out into the hotel lobby, the only speaker at CPAC to do so.

"Sarah! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" squealed a young woman jumping up and down.

"I love you!" Palin yelled, reaching out her hands and lingering a few minutes before exiting through a side door.

A short while later, a long line of people waited for a seat inside the hotel ballroom.

Many were unequivocal Palinistas, people such as Ron Devito, who wore a button that said "Sarah's Army," and Julie Cawley, who said that while Palin could not sway her to vote for Gingrich, "I just love her -- love her guts." Others said they were just curious.

It was standing room only inside, and soon, white lights in the shape of stars were swirling across an admiring audience. Palin walked on stage and delivered a speech that drew some of the most raucous cheers of the conference.

"That is America! And that is freedom ... !" she said in closing. "God bless you patriots! And God bless the United States of America!"

Then, smiling and waving, Palin waded into the cheering crowd.

Photos: Conservative Political Action Conference speech
The Washington Post