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.
Most recently, her appointed state attorney general, Talis Colberg, attempted to block subpoenas issued by the legislature to Palin administration officials during an investigation of "Troopergate" -- an inquiry into a string of events that began with Palin's effort to have her sister's ex-husband dismissed from his job as a state trooper. Colberg's moves culminated with his resignation last week.
Some of the resentments that have surfaced in Alaska are the same ones confronting her elsewhere, problems born of a campaign that saw her set aside the mantle of a pragmatic, bipartisan-minded reformer in favor of serving as a loyal partisan who aggressively trumpeted the Republican Party's differences with Obama.
Early in her term, her staunchest allies on state ethics reform and pivotal energy issues included several liberal Democrats. Alaska's current House Democratic leader, Beth Kerttula, joined Palin in successfully arguing for the adoption of a controversial oil tax increase that the industry resisted. "She was . . . completely a pragmatist," Kerttula recalls. "She knew she had to work with Democrats."
Now, two abortion-related bills that Palin had made little effort to promote have been reintroduced, and another Republican legislator has pushed for the state's adoption of a death penalty, something last seen in Alaska during its territorial days. Palin has voiced support for all three bills, but there have been no signs yet of any hard push from the governor's office.
Some Alaska Democrats and Republicans wonder whether Palin, given her new stature among social conservatives who are urging her to run for president, will feel compelled to invest more political capital in the two abortion-related measures.
Balash indicates that this is unlikely. "It'd be great if we could consider every issue in a vacuum, but we can't. That doesn't please everyone."
Amid the questions over her public agenda, her family continues to make headlines. In an interview with Fox News, her 18-year-old daughter, Bristol, who gave birth to a son late last year, said that the decision to go ahead with her unplanned pregnancy was hers alone and that teaching abstinence to teenagers, a concept supported by her mother, is "not realistic at all."
According to a new book, the governor decided against telling family members of her own pregnancy with son Trig until its final weeks, as she privately coped with worries about rearing a child with Down syndrome.
The late news of the governor's pregnancy surprised longtime associates, one of whom privately said colleagues had learned not to expect details of Palin's family life. Many legislators believe that the only lasting intimate in her inner circle is an adviser without an official title -- her husband, Todd. "She keeps all of us at arm's length because she's not afraid to drop the hammer on any of us and hold us accountable," said Balash, an unabashed admirer of her leadership style.
Despite the distractions and speculation over Palin's future, her advisers say she is singularly focused on her work as governor, pointing out that of the seven days she has spent outside Alaska since the election, six have been spent on official business for the state, including a January weekend in Washington.
The official explanation for the weekend was that Palin would be conveying Alaska's needs to Congress and the new administration. But Fred Malek, the McCain campaign's deputy national finance chairman, had called Palin after the election and invited her to be his guest, along with Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, at the Alfalfa Club banquet, an annual congregation of the city's political luminaries. The night before, Palin attended a private dinner at Malek's home.
Malek is one Palin ally who makes no effort to hide his anger at the "anonymous attacks" Palin has seen from McCain campaign insiders.
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.