Former Gov. Sarah Palin's bus touring around the Lower 48 had a big image of the state of Alaska, and she's constantly talking up her home state. But back home, her main initiatives as governor continue to be under attack from fellow Republicans and her poll numbers aren't looking good.
Alaskans have a complicated relationship with the most famous resident in the state's history, who during her first year in the governor's office consistently had public approval ratings at or approaching 80 percent. She's largely been out of sight in Alaska since resigning a little more than halfway through her term as governor in 2009, and many in the state have moved on from her, weary of the drama that's surrounded Palin the past two years.
But her image looms huge in the world's perception of the 49th state. Alaskans traveling out of state and internationally who used to hear questions about glaciers and polar bears now face questions about their former governor.
Palin's national identity is completely wrapped up in Alaska, whether it be her reality show highlighting the state or her descriptions of why she is qualified to possibly be the next president of the United States. She and husband Todd recently bought a home in Arizona but she emphasized that having a second home in a warm climate is a pretty Alaskan thing to do.
Her supporters have created a movie touting her record as governor. Palin brought her record up on her bus tour of the East Coast, while she says that she is considering a run for the presidency in the 2012 election.
"My record in Alaska, especially when it comes to oil and gas development and being in charge of about 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of energy, I know there that my record is very strong. And cleaning up some ethics problems that we had in state government, which I'm sure other governors have faced too, cleaning up the ethical problems we had in Alaska, that's part of a strong record too," Palin told reporters in Gettysburg, Pa., a stop on her bus tour, which ended Friday
Alaska is actually responsible for 2.6 percent of the nation's total energy production, ranking 12th among the states, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It is more like 11 percent of the nation's total crude oil production, second behind Texas, the EIA reports
Palin's oil policy is coming under attack from none other than her former lieutenant governor, Republican Sean Parnell, an ex-legislator and oil company lobbyist whom Palin elevated to governor when she resigned. Parnell and Republican legislators maintain that the oil tax increase Palin championed, called Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share, is seriously hindering further development of the oil and gas industry here and is hurting the state's economy.
Republican leaders of the Alaska Legislature are also critical of Palin's strategy for pursuing a natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48, saying it is a fantasy costing the state up to a $500 million subsidy. The main advocates in the Legislature of keeping the Palin-era oil and gas initiatives in place are the Democrats who worked with her administration on them, but who don't have much else good to say about her these days.
Palin still has a firm group of supporters in the state who feel she has been unfairly trashed by biased news media. And Alaskans aren't immune to her draw, streaming up to Palin and wanting to be photographed next to her during a rare Alaska appearance last summer at a tea party event in Wasilla.
The most recent publicly distributed poll of Alaska public opinion about Palin showed just 36 percent had a positive opinion of the former governor. The poll by Dittman Research of Anchorage, conducted in March, echoed polling late last year by Public Policy Polling, which also found Palin had high negatives among fellow Alaskans.
Dittman attributed her numbers to the oil tax increase (ACES) and Palin's program to pursue the dream of a natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48 (AGIA).
"Part of it is still kind of lingering around her resigning or quitting," he said. "But I think the biggest part of it right now is related to the economic element of it, the disaster of ACES and AGIA. Frankly it's just getting to be there's less and less to like."
Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore said his ongoing polls have consistently showed a low favorability for Palin in Alaska since the beginning of last year, always registering in the range of 42 percent positive about her (his polling was of registered voters, while the latest Dittman poll was of the public at large). But Moore said he believes Dittman is wrong on the reasons and it's not about the oil and gas policies of the Palin administration, with the oil tax in particular not unpopular.
"We're talking about the cumulative effect of things that started off with Troopergate, went through the vice presidential run and the various gaffes there, and continues today," Moore said. "I think in large part the stuff that she did when she was governor was pretty popular ... I think it's basically that people have come to the conclusion that she is not what they thought she was from the point of view of her as a person."
Despite the fact that legislative Republicans are often the biggest Alaska critics of Palin's policies as governor, polls show that her approval ratings among registered Republicans in Alaska do remain solid.
The Dittman poll that found just a 36 percent positive rating for Palin overall in Alaska said she maintains a 67 percent favorability rating among registered Republicans. The majority of Alaskans aren't registered with any political party.
There aren't many obvious signs of Palin in her hometown of Wasilla nowadays, other than a sticker reading "Dance Bristol Dance" on the Mocha Moose drive-through. Palin reportedly has a television studio in her Wasilla home that she uses for her appearances as a Fox News commentator, but she's often out of state and reports are scant of people spotting her at the Walmart or elsewhere around town like in the old days.
The owner of the Mocha Moose, which became internationally famous during Palin's 2008 vice presidential run as the place she stopped for coffee, said he's maybe seen her twice since then, although she favors the separate drive-through stand off the Parks Highway over the main location. Palin is working on a bigger stage, he said.
"She lays pretty low, it seems like, but she's busy, she's got a lot of irons in the fire," said owner Ben Harrell. "I give her kudos for that; go git 'er ... She's writing books, doing movies, Fox News. I wouldn't even come out my house if I was her."
He said tourists constantly ask about Palin, wanting to know if he knows her, asking where the Palins live and if she's the person she's portrayed. He said he tells them that Palin is genuine.
"They're just for real, the whole family is just for real and her politics, it's take it or leave it politics. It's real simple politics ... people just don't understand politics and they really don't realize how much crap she went through, and it's sad," he said.
Wasilla City Councilwoman Dianne Woodruff, who has been critical of Palin, said she believes most people in Wasilla don't spend much time thinking about Palin unless they read an article in the paper or something else brings Palin back up.
"Those that love her and those that are old family friends I think will stay loyal but just on the street I don't hear very many positive comments," said Woodruff, who is running for Wasilla mayor.
"It's not like a 'There's our Sarah' kind of thing. It's not the positive kind of thing; it's more like, 'We wish she'd just be quiet and stop embarrassing us,' " she said.
'THERE YOU GO AGAIN'
Palin has played little role in Alaska politics since resigning as governor, other than backing Joe Miller to defeat Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in last year's Republican primary. Miller likely wouldn't have been able to beat Murkowski in the primary without the money and exposure afforded by Palin's endorsement, but he lost to Murkowski's write-in campaign in the general election.
Miller's current poll numbers in Alaska are abysmal, registering just an 18 percent positive rating in Alaska during a Dittman poll on him this spring.
Eagle River Republican state Sen. Fred Dyson, who has supported Palin and appeared with her at a rally for Miller in Anchorage last fall, said he doesn't have any sense that Palin is involved in Alaska public life anymore. The reasons for that are her own, he said.
"I'm reluctant to speculate," Dyson said. "I'm hardly certain of my own motives at times, let alone hers."
The first time Alaskans saw Palin publicly lay out a defense of the ACES oil tax increase against Parnell's attempt to roll it back was after The New York Times wrote a story about it in March. The next day Palin put out a Facebook post titled "NYT, There You Go Again." The post described how ACES was born amid corruption in the previous oil tax system and is a factor in the huge state budget surplus that Alaska now enjoys.
"Regardless of the recent political posturing, ACES (Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share) is a success for all stakeholders who want more domestic energy supplies for our great country," the Palin Facebook page said. "The Alaskan people (who collectively own the natural resources, via our state constitution), the resource producers who bid on the right to develop our oil and gas, and consumers all benefit under ACES. It incentivizes production and development. It works."
Reach Sean Cockerham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.
By SEAN COCKERHAM