Back Home in Alaska, Palin Faces Scrutiny and Second-Guessing From All Sides

By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

JUNEAU, Alaska -- A couple of weeks before the Alaska legislature began this year's session, a bipartisan group of state senators on a retreat a few hours from here invited Gov. Sarah Palin to join them. Accompanied by a retinue of advisers, she took a seat at one end of a conference table and listened passively as Gary Stevens, the president of the Alaska Senate, a former college history professor and a low-key Republican with a reputation for congeniality, expressed delight at her presence.

Would the governor, a smiling Stevens asked, like to share some of her plans and proposals for the coming legislative session?

Palin looked around the room and paused, according to several senators present. "I feel like you guys are always trying to put me on the spot," she said finally, as the room became silent.

Gone was the self-assurance that Alaska had come to know in its young Republican governor, well before her life and career were transformed by Sen. John McCain's selection of her as his vice presidential running mate. "She looked ill at ease, more defensive than we've been accustomed to seeing her," said one legislator who was there and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said he might need to work with Palin.

A number of factors seem to have contributed to the bumpy homecoming: a residual anger among Democrats for the attack-dog role Palin assumed in the McCain campaign, lingering resentment from Republicans for the part she may have played in McCain's defeat, and a suspicion crossing party lines that the concerns of Alaska, at a time of economic crisis, will now be secondary to her future in national politics.

Nearly every move that Palin makes or does not make, acknowledges Joe Balash, one of her closest aides, is analyzed through a new political prism, scrutinized for its effect on a possible 2012 presidential candidacy. "There's nothing we can do to stop it," he said. "People wonder why she's doing something or not doing something."

The result of all this scrutiny and second-guessing, says one Republican ally, is that "the governor has been feeling beaten up."

The lists of her doings and not doings include a growing leeriness of the media -- she declined requests for an interview for this article -- as she pursues an aggressive strategy on the national political front.

She has established a political action committee, SarahPAC, designed to fund her national appearances. She sat for a lengthy interview with a conservative documentarian exploring the reasons behind President Obama's election, during which she reiterated her belief that she was unflatteringly exploited by such TV personages as Katie Couric and Tina Fey, and suggested she was mishandled by the McCain campaign.

She has taken sides in a war for the soul of the newly beleaguered Republican Party in Texas, where that state's senior GOP senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison, plans to challenge Republican Gov. Rick Perry in a primary fight that may serve as an early indicator of social conservatives' strength in the GOP nationally. In a written statement, Palin said Perry "walks the walk of a true conservative. And he sticks by his guns -- and you know how I feel about guns."

Constantly asked about Palin's future, Balash says that she has no timetable for making up her mind about 2012 and that she hasn't even told him whether she'll run for reelection in 2010.

While her once sky-high job approval ratings in her home state have dropped a little, Palin is still liked by more than 60 percent of the Alaskan electorate, the sort of number that most politicians can only dream about. Still, the anonymous sniping that portrayed her during the campaign as a flighty and demanding running mate continues to resonate with some legislators. Among both Republicans and Democrats, the view persists that she and those closest to her have overstepped their authority on occasion.

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