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Northern Star Rising

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, October 31, 2008

My view of Sarah Palin has changed in the two months since John McCain named her as his running mate. I'm guessing that McCain's view of Palin may be changing, too, and not entirely in a good way.

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I thought Palin was a lightweight; she's not. I thought she was an ingenue; she is, but only as long as her claws are sheathed. I thought she was bewildered and star-struck at her sudden elevation to national prominence; if she ever was, she isn't anymore. I thought she was nothing but raw political talent and unrealistic ambition; it turns out that she has impressive political skills. I thought she was destined to become nothing more than a historical footnote; I now think that Democrats underestimate her at their peril.

At this point, only McCain's most loyal lieutenants could have been surprised when Palin told ABC's Elizabeth Vargas that she's already looking beyond Tuesday's election toward her own political future. Asked whether she would just pack it in and go back to Alaska if she and McCain lose, Palin replied: "I think that, if I were to give up and wave a white flag of surrender against some of the political shots that we've taken . . . I'm not doing this for naught."

No, she's doing it for Sarah -- and doing it increasingly well.

It's tempting to think of Palin as a kind of pop star, the latest flash in the pan who rockets to the top of the charts and then fades to obscurity -- Alec Baldwin referred to her as "Bible Spice" the other day. But that smug assessment ignores the evidence that she has the chops to be much more than a one-hit wonder.

Palin's introduction to the nation was disastrous, at least in terms of appealing to a constituency beyond the conservative wing of the Republican Party. It was obvious from the beginning that she wasn't remotely prepared for high national office. The red-meat Republican base was energized, but others saw McCain's decision to put her on the ticket as cynical and irresponsible.

Palin herself must have realized that her debut was premature. But as Vernon Jordan likes to say, "Opportunity is never convenient."

I should make clear that I believe Palin is wrong about basically everything, at least to the extent that we know what she really believes. The McCain campaign gave her a job to do -- slash, burn, fire up the base, accuse Barack Obama of "palling around with terrorists," accuse Obama supporters of not living in "pro-America" parts of the country -- and she went out and did it. McCain's campaign rallies often have a sense of purpose and duty about them; Palin's have a sense of electricity.

Palin's brief record as governor of Alaska, however, doesn't really display the ideological rigidity she has shown on the campaign trail. I suspect that in the coming years she will rediscover the flexibility and pragmatism that have made her a genuinely popular governor.

She has already become flexible enough to allow -- or encourage -- confidants to blame McCain's advisers for everything that has gone wrong. They kept her sequestered from interviewers. They bought her all those fancy clothes from Saks and Neiman Marcus, when she would have been satisfied with a few odds and ends from her favorite consignment shop. They were reluctant to let the real Sarah emerge.

Some of McCain's people reply that she wasn't remotely ready for interviews, that she needed and wanted that high-end clothing, and that the real Sarah is a diva who seems to think she's the one at the top of the ticket. All of which is true -- and all of which reinforces my belief that Palin is a much more formidable politician than I first thought.

That she wasn't ready to meet the national media became clear when she sat down with Katie Couric for those embarrassing sessions. But compare the bunny-in-the-headlights Sarah Palin of just a few weeks ago with the much more poised and confident Sarah Palin of today. Ignorance isn't the same thing as stupidity. When Palin talks about economic policy these days, her sentences don't meander into the Twilight Zone the way they once did. She has more to say about foreign policy besides the fact that Russia is just across the Bering Strait. She has learned much in a very short period.

And she will learn more. I predict we'll have Sarah Palin to kick around for a long, long time.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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