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Sarah Palin: Master media manipulator

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DES MOINES, IA - AUGUST 12: Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is surrounded by a crowd of journalists and fairgoers while visiting the Cattle Barn at the Iowa State Fair August 12, 2011 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) Sarah Palin is the puppeteer. We, the media, are her puppets.

Since rising to national prominence during the 2008 presidential campaign, the former Alaska governor has demonstrated an uncanny ability to not only draw media attention but manipulate that coverage when and how she chooses.

“For someone out of elected office and not running for anything, Palin has a near singular ability to capture the media’s attention,” said Christian Ferry who served as deputy campaign manager for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid. “If you take her at her word, which I do, she doesn’t know if she is going to run for president, but she knows she has this power with the media and she is smart to use it.”

The latest example? Word leaked late Tuesday night that Palin would speak at a Tea Party Express rally in Manchester, New Hampshire this weekend, a trip that will come hard on the heels of a much-speculated speech to another tea party group in Indianola, Iowa. (On Wednesday, Palin appeared to back out of the Iowa event, choosing to attend a Conservatives4Palin rally in Des Moines instead. Or maybe not.)

Back to back trips to Iowa and New Hampshire are catnip for the political class and Palin knows it. But whether her schedule this weekend is an indication that she is actually planning to run for president or just another political feint from a woman who has made a living — literally — from them is virtually impossible to figure out.

A quick look back at Palin’s actions over the last few years shows a consistent pattern of defying media expectations and the conventions that govern campaigns.

To wit:

* Amid speculation about her prospects as a 2012 candidate, Palin abruptly announced her resignation as governor of Alaska with 18 months still remaining in her first term — a move that drew widespread criticism from the Republican establishment.

* She made a stop in New Hampshire on the same day that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was announcing his presidential bid in the state earlier this year, stealing headlines and stepping on his big day.

* In Palin’s Memorial Day weekend bus trip to historical sites up the East Coast, she didn’t release any itinerary to the media — making it virtually impossible for anyone to cover the trip — and she seemed to delight in giving reporters the slip.

* During a trip to the Iowa State Fair earlier this month, Palin stunned many reporters by spending an hour fielding their questions while walking around the fair grounds.

There are many, many more examples but you get the idea. When everyone expects Palin to zig, she zags. Just when you think you’re out, she pulls you back in.

What Palin seems to understand intuitively is the tendency on the part of the media to want to connect the dots, to see strategy behind travel schedules, speeches accepted, candidates endorsed.

And, knowing that, she actively works to not only confound those expectations but scold the media — or pundit class — any time they try to ascribe particular motives to her actions. Palin’s grand strategy seems to be that there is no grand strategy — beyond, of course, messing with reporters.

“Over the last couple of years, she has parlayed the role of a victim into one of the ringleader of a media circus that is her persona,” said Tracey Schmitt, a former Republican National Committee official who worked closely with Palin during the 2008 vice presidential race. “Campaigning against the Democrats and Obama has almost taken a back seat to the ‘NY Times primary’. She fights fire with fire — ‘gotcha’ journalists, are now subjected to ‘gotcha’ scheduling.”

And so, while Palin’s schedule this weekend certainly looks like that of someone getting ready to run for president — we have always held that politicians never go to Iowa by accident — it may, in fact, mean nothing at all.

While Palin has proven to be an expert at drawing media attention and confounding the collective expectations of reporters, it’s not clear that such an approach can sustain her if and when she does ultimately get into the race.

As we have written before, running against the media has its limits — even in a Republican primary. And while Palin clearly revels in the free-wheeling nature of her current “schedule”, it’s hard to see that sort of fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants approach working over the long slog that is a presidential primary — a process that is virtually defined by the need for rigid scheduling and message discipline.

Of course, given Palin’s record of defying expectations, she may well transform herself into a scheduled and disciplined candidate if she does run.

We doubt it, but we’ve been wrong many (many, many) times before about what Palin will do.

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