Having traveled from Buffalo, 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 who wishes to remain friends for life, he had moved on.
The response reflects how Palin’s star has traveled from a central spot 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.
“She certainly has influence on politics, but she’s more of an entertainer these days,” offered a prominent Republican who is fond of Palin but did not want to be named in order to speak candidly. “She’s probably got a fair amount of opportunities, but they’re not endless. The world is not at her feet.”
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 reemerged as a political force in the 2010 midterm elections, with roughly half of her 64 candidate 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 primaries, raising questions about whether she is wielding influence or grasping for it.