It was a Sarah Palin crowd.
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 Sarah 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, 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.
Then came last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual rally for the 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 radio talker Rush Limbaugh and Rep. Allen B. West (R-Fla.)
“It will be very interesting to see what the reaction is to her speech,” conference chairman Al Cardenas said last week as he rode an escalator down to the hotel exhibition area, where red-lanyard-wearing attendees milled around booths for FreedomWorks, Let Freedom Ring, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, and Freedom Alliance.
Here was Ken Hoagland, chairman of the political action committee Restore America’s Voice, which had signed Mike Huckabee and Herman Cain to do TV spots against President Obama’s health-care plan. He had not reached out to Palin.
“Palin,” he mused when asked about her value in such ads. “I’d love to talk to her. I’d probably sign her up on the right issue — like, I wouldn’t put her on TV for foreign policy. On energy? Oh, yes.”
Here was GOP fundraiser Bruce Eberle: “If you want someone to sign a fundraising letter, it would be hard to beat Sarah Palin and Herman Cain,” he said.
Here, signing autographs, was Herman Cain, the former businessman and GOP primary candidate who dropped out amid allegations of sexual harassment and now appeared to be Palin’s competition on the tea party figurehead circuit.
His former campaign manager, Mark Block, stood nearby. “Sarah who?” he joked.
Behind a spray of red and blue streamers, Leanne Livingston, 21, sat at the Tea Party Patriots booth, head in hand. She lamented the choices that her onetime heroine had made.
“With her TV show, she’s just all over the place,” Livingston said. “I feel she could have done something else other than a reality show. If you really break down who can move our party to great heights, she can’t.”
It is difficult to truly gauge Palin’s influence. Some believe she helped swing the South Carolina primary for Gingrich while others say Gingrich did that himself. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 23 percent of registered Republicans and GOP-leaning independents nationwide said that an endorsement by Palin would make them more likely to back a particular candidate. Another 15 percent said it would make them less likely to do so.
Palin has roughly 3 million followers on Facebook. Her last Federal Election Commission filing showed SarahPAC, her fundraising arm, with a little more than $1 million in cash.
A less formal measure was the booth at CPAC where volunteers were giving away posters of Ronald Reagan and Palin.
“Did y’all want a Reagan or Palin or both?” an attendant asked a couple.
“Um, just a Reagan,” said the man.
“A Reagan, thanks,” said the woman.
Standing in line for an Ann Coulter speech, Lynne Schneider, 49, named the leaders she most wanted to hear this election year.
“Let’s see,” she began. “Congressman Allen West. Romney. Governor Scott Walker. Carly Fiorina.”
“She’s a continuous voice, a consistent voice,” Schneider said.
Nearby, Bill Leyden, 65, offered his list: “Marco Rubio, Michele Bachmann . . . ”
“Not really,” Leyden said. “She’s kind of exciting. I like that song, ‘Moose Shootin’ Mama’ or whatever it is. I think she’s gotten to that stage where she’s sort of cashing in. Like Bill Clinton, only he was president. Her price is discounted.”
Few 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.
“Oh, my God! Sarah!” screamed a young girl, and soon Palin was wreathed by adoring fans hoisting cameras and reaching out their hands.
“Sarah! Can we just get one photo!?” a young man yelled, and Palin obliged.
“Sarah! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” squealed a young woman jumping up and down.
“I love you!” Palin yelled, extending 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 although 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 onstage 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, her voice almost growling. “God bless you patriots! And God bless the United States of America!”
Then, smiling and waving, Palin waded into the cheering crowd.
Staff writers Philip Rucker and Amy Gardner contributed to this report.