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

Not everyone is sympathetic. "There are few political performers in her league, in her ability to draw crowds and stand in front of 10,000, 20,000 people and excite them," said one prominent GOP strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But the campaign also demonstrated that there is a lack of gravity to her that has hurt. She needs to mitigate her weaknesses. She needs to prepare more, know more. She should try to disappear for a while and be an indisputably effective governor."

Palin's greatest problems in Alaska, as in the rest of the country, seem to be with her fellow Republicans. "What did I say about her during the campaign when somebody asked me if she was qualified?" asked state Rep. John Harris, taking a moment to ponder his own question, smiling. "Oh, I said something like 'She's old enough and a registered voter.' " Another smile.

A former speaker of the state House, Harris believes that Palin and her team need to improve relationships with legislators.

"A lot of people around here see it as the Eva Peron syndrome -- Sarah being Evita," said Larry Persily, a top aide to Mike Hawker (R), co-chairman of the state House's Finance Committee. "She doesn't care about the political establishment, but the people in the streets love her."

Yet some Republican observers privately wonder whether Palin will be burdened by her divisive impact on people -- and possibly dismissed as someone with a formidable base who is too polarizing and parodied to win nationally. Just recently, the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund enlisted actress Ashley Judd for a video attacking Palin by name for her support of an Alaska program that permits hunters to shoot wolves from aircraft to pare their numbers. The reference to Palin meant that overnight, the issue became ample reason for cable news stories about her and the controversy.

Asked how Palin deals with the perception that months of ridicule have irreversibly turned her into what one Alaskan GOP legislator calls "Dan Quayle with a ponytail," Balash confidently responds that she displays political skills that no other Republican on the national scene has shown an ability to match. "She walks into a room, and things change," he said. "She just has that 'it' -- whatever that 'it' is."

The "it" was on display one night last month when Palin appeared inside the modest chamber of the Alaska House of Representatives to deliver her annual State of the State address. An audible buzz served as a reminder of the asset that Malek believes will keep her at least on Republicans' minds for elections to come.

Reading from a teleprompter, Palin called for a state hiring freeze to address a looming budget deficit, reasserted her commitment to "the culture of life," alluded to the past campaign and urged listeners "to fight for each other, not against, and not let external, sensationalized distinctions draw us off course."

At the speech's conclusion, she left the building, as is her norm these days, without answering questions, biding her time -- waiting, according to Balash, for the right moment.

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