CLIVE, Iowa — Inspired by the possibility of a Sarah Palin presidential run, Peter Singleton moved to this suburban community from California in November 2010 and booked an extended stay at the Days Inn on 114th Street. Palin was a tea party queen-maker at the time, and true believers such as Singleton could sense a bid for the White House. For the next 10 months, he rallied Iowans to the cause.
But there would be no second political act for Palin, and many supporters have moved on. Singleton said he still admires the former Alaska governor and follows her on Facebook, but politically she holds little sway over him. Singleton didn't even bother to attend Palin's speech Sunday afternoon a short drive from here because he disagreed with her endorsement in Iowa's Republican U.S. Senate primary.
"It's one of those things," Singleton said. "I have great respect for her, but this isn't about a person, it's about a set of principles and values."
Four years after using her unique position to propel a number of conservatives — many previously unknown and not favored by party leaders — in the tea party wave of 2010, Palin is today a diminished figure in the Republican Party. Even as she travels to Iowa and elsewhere to bolster her handpicked candidates, her influence in these midterm elections has been eclipsed by a new class of stars and her circle has narrowed, with a handful of aides guiding her and few allies in Washington beyond a group of backbench troublemakers in Congress.
When Palin took the stage at the Hy-Vee Conference Center under a banner that read "Heels On, Gloves Off" on Sunday at an event for Senate candidate Joni Ernst, the ballroom was half-full, with a couple of hundred attendees scattered in clumps. Three people held signs and, while Palin was received warmly, only about 50 people stayed after to shake her hand on the rope line as Shania Twain's "She's Not Just a Pretty Face" blared from the speakers.
Craig Robinson, a former political director for the Iowa GOP, said that it was Palin's smallest in-state crowd ever. Organizers blamed heavy rain.
"We're going to do everything we can to help and hopefully not hurt her campaign," Palin said at the start of her introduction of Ernst, bouncing between criticism of the news media, the president and Republican leaders. In between her barbs, she sprinkled in praise for Iowa, calling it "so Americana."
On Monday, however, it was not Palin's Iowa comments that caused a stir but remarks she made Saturday at a National Rifle Association convention, where she said the controversial practice of waterboarding detained combatants should be "how we baptize terrorists." Some conservative Christians promptly denounced her for citing a sacrament in that context.
So far this election cycle, Palin has endorsed more than a dozen candidates, with mixed results. This month, Lizbeth Benacquisto, whom Palin backed ahead of a special House GOP primary in Florida, was defeated. A month earlier, Katrina Pierson, a tea party activist running against Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, also lost a House primary, despite Palin hailing her as a "feisty fighter for freedom."
"She has some pull with the base, but it has fallen a little bit," said conservative blogger Erick Erickson, who was also at the reception Friday after moderating a Senate primary forum. During the debate, Ernst, a state senator who sits near the top of the polls, only once mentioned the GOP's 2008 vice-presidential nominee.
In the first quarter of this year, SarahPAC's federal election filings show contributions of $56,000 to federal candidates. But with more than $1 million on hand, SarahPAC has yet to dispense the money, most of which comes from small-dollar donors.
Recipients of Palin's largesse include T.W. Shannon, a former state House speaker running in Oklahoma's GOP Senate primary; Ben Sasse, a former federal official running for Senate in Nebraska; and Chris McDaniel, a Mississippi state senator looking to oust six-term Republican Sen. Thad Cochran in a June 3 primary.
Jordan Russell, an adviser to Cochran, shrugged off Palin's nod. "We're happy to have the endorsement of our governor," he said. "We'll leave the out-of-state people to other folks."
Julianne Ortman, a Republican state senator challenging Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., round out Palin's list of endorsements in key Senate races. In the states, she has backed businessman Pete Ricketts, a Nebraska Republican running for governor, Greg Abbott, Texas's GOP gubernatorial nominee, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, R, whom Palin is partly credited with launching to national prominence in 2010.when she endorsed her during a hotly contested primary.
As some Republicans have watched Palin slip from her perch atop the GOP's conservative bloc, Democrats have worked to keep her there. In a fundraising letter this weekend, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who is up for reelection, ominously warned that Palin could jump into his race at the last minute.
"We need to be prepared for any opponent — especially Palin," Begich wrote.
On Sunday, after Palin left the rally, Iowa Democratic Party spokeswoman Christina Freundlich released a statement knocking Ernst for associating with a "right-wing celebrity" who uses "inflammatory" language.
Conservative hands are unsettled about the role Palin is looking to play in a rapidly changing political landscape nearly six years after she first gained notice beyond the last frontier.
Since Palin and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., lost the 2008 presidential election, Palin has stayed in periodic contact with McCain, but she has lost touch with many of the Republicans who were her campaign acquaintances. Fred Malek, a former adviser to Richard Nixon and McCain who once hosted the Palins at his Northern Virginia home, has not spoken to her in months.
"She has never been one to seek out Washington relationships," he said.
Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor who helped to pluck Palin from obscurity after he met her during one of his magazine's cruises to Alaska, said he has not spoken with Palin recently either. "She is now one of many Republican women who have emerged as leaders," he said.
Other conservatives have continued to tout her as a power, irrespective of her disengagement from the daily political fight — she is busy with her own show, "Amazing America," on the Sportsman Channel and giving paid speeches through the Washington Speakers Bureau.
Last week, Palin traveled to Oklahoma and Nebraska to attend gatherings for Shannon and Sasse, and she flew to each state with two Republican senators who have become political intimates with her in the past year: Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.
With near-constant internal conflicts roiling the GOP, Palin has veered right, siding with Cruz and Lee, who were vocal proponents of last year's government shutdown.
In a phone call from Utah, Lee said the plane rides with Palin and Cruz were moments of camaraderie for the trio during which they discussed politics and talked about the state of the GOP, which they view as crippled by its tendency to lurch toward compromises with Democrats on immigration or taxes. "She makes no secret about the way she views the world," he said.
When Cruz was giving a lengthy speech on the Senate floor last fall about the need to repeal President Barack Obama's health-care law, Palin sent him a box of caribou jerky from Alaska as sustenance; she did the same for Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., when he filibustered on drone policy.
When she has ventured to Washington, Palin has focused on nurturing her links to Cruz, Lee and their brethren in the House. During an October trip, Palin spoke privately to staffers for Cruz, Lee and other aligned lawmakers, urging them to not be "co-opted" by lobbyists or GOP officials.
Yet, as she grows closer to Cruz and Lee, Palin is finding herself in more of a supporting slot, and her best-attended rallies this year have been with them. "Sarah may have been Led Zeppelin for conservatives, but Cruz is the Beatles," said Steve Deace, a conservative radio host based in Iowa.
By Robert Costa
The Washington Post