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Sunday Take: Palin's book tour may indicate political future

The cover of the book by Sarah Palin
The cover of the book by Sarah Palin "Going Rogue: An American Life" distributed by Harper books. (AP/Harper) (AP)

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sarah Palin is embarking on what is likely to be the most commercially successful book tour by a politician since Barack Obama launched "The Audacity of Hope" three years ago. Obama's book tour spawned a presidential campaign. Will Palin's do the same?

Her ultimate ambitions remain a mystery. The opening stage of the tour for her book "Going Rogue" has been marked by the same qualities that have defined the public reaction to her since that morning in Ohio when she was announced as John McCain's choice for vice president: curiosity and controversy.

Give Palin credit: She has a gift for attracting attention. Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), who twice unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination, said of her recently that she has "the quality that every politician wants to have: She's interesting. Most politicians would swap about anything for that quality."

But with the attention comes the controversy. The first reports about the book, thanks to the Associated Press, have reignited her wars with McCain's campaign team, this time over her assertion that the campaign had billed her $50,000 for the cost of her vice presidential vetting. Not so, McCain advisers said. That probably won't be the last such clash as the book tour continues, although the advisers actually seem reluctant to be drawn too far into replaying old arguments.

Palin will travel from one book signing to another aboard a bus that will make the tour appear very much like an extension of her campaign for vice president, or the beginning of a new campaign. She will be riding what one Republican calls a backlash among many conservatives against the treatment she has received from the media and much of the political establishment.

The book tour will provide the subtext for a bigger discussion of what kind of political future Palin may have -- or, more important, may want to have. Is she merely a political personality, or is there something that could be called "Palinism," defining a political philosophy that could help her party win elections and turn her into a viable national candidate?

There is no conclusive evidence that Palin intends to use the book tour to define more clearly her political philosophy or to fill out her profile. The book appears to be partly an effort to settle scores, and for now she may be as interested in making money for her and her family. The future can wait.

But the eventual answer to the question of what kind of political future she may have rests with how Palin performs. As former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich put it a few weeks ago: "If she grows, she'll be the Republican nominee. More than anybody else in the party, her future is in her hands."

Gingrich said he expects an "amazing" book tour for the former Alaska governor, with enthusiastic audiences at her signings and plenty of media coverage. "If in the process she begins to develop a sophisticated message and she begins to do interviews where people say, you know, 'She was maligned and there's a lot more there than I thought,' she'll be very formidable -- and she'll be the front-runner by February or March."

Right now, public opinion is sharply divided on Sarah Palin. There are those who see her as an authentic voice for traditional American values battling a culture that is trampling on those values on a daily basis. They see her as a victim of elite scorn and media mistreatment. Her detractors, and that includes most Democrats and many independents, regard her as a political lightweight who is not fit to become the nominee of her party or president of the United States. Some Republican intellectuals see her that way as well.

That Palin is a force within the conservative movement is without question. In that way, some Republicans see Palin as they saw Gingrich in the years leading up to his election as speaker -- a sometimes divisive figure who helped spark and energize a movement that eventually reached critical mass as a political force, though Gingrich has always been more comfortable in the battle of ideas than Palin appears to be.

A veteran of many Republican presidential campaigns sees in the huge crowds that turned out for Palin last year the first stirrings of what has become the Tea Party protests. "She taps into that underlining stream of anger that folks feel so deeply, as Newt did in 1994," this GOP strategist said. "And like Newt, she is a revolutionary figure to that crowd."

Palin demonstrated her influence among populist conservatives last month when she intervened in the special House election in New York's 23rd Congressional District. Her decision to back Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman over Republican Dede Scozzafava elevated the race to national significance, and put Palin on the side of the grass-roots populist conservative movement and at odds with the GOP establishment (which included Gingrich).

That battle ended badly for the GOP. With Republicans badly split over Hoffman and Scozzafava, Democrat Bill Owens was elected to the seat long held by Republicans. But the skirmish in Upstate New York surely stamped Palin as a leader of the conservative forces inside the party.

The question is whether that is the limit of her influence, or does she have the ability to fill out her political profile in a way that expands her appeal? Her political profile now is grounded more in grievance and attitude than in positive ideas. She is effective in amplifying the voices of those expressing anger toward the Obama administration, toward Washington, toward big government, toward Wall Street bankers, toward elites in general.

But there are political limits to that. Few Republican strategists now see her as a probable presidential nominee in 2012, and more and more of them are saying that publicly. The coming weeks will offer Palin the opportunity for a reintroduction and to show, as Gingrich put it so well, whether she has the capacity to grow politically.


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