Can Sarah Palin translate celebrity into real political power?

Sarah Palin was the toast of the tea party convention. But most Americans don't think she is qualified to be president, according to a new poll.
Sarah Palin was the toast of the tea party convention. But most Americans don't think she is qualified to be president, according to a new poll. (Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sarah Palin has proved that she can draw a crowd. What she has yet to demonstrate is that she can translate the appeal of a phenomenon into a political force that can attract or mobilize sizable numbers of voters.

The former Alaska governor is the Republican Party's biggest celebrity. She has given voice to a grass-roots movement grounded in anger with Washington and President Obama's policies. But her political future remains in question. Is she presidential timber? A force only within the Republican Party? A protest candidate like George Wallace (minus the racial divisiveness) or Ross Perot?

"Sarah Palin will have to choose to be either the leader of a movement or the leader of a nation. She can't be both," said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. "Right now, she is a figure like [George] McGovern or [Barry] Goldwater, two candidates who led the most intense movements in our country's political history, but who couldn't win the middle."

If Palin harbors presidential ambitions, she has a huge mountain to climb. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 71 percent of Americans do not think the politician who was Sen. John McCain's running mate in 2008 is qualified to be president.

Those numbers are so daunting that some Republicans who otherwise admire what she has accomplished doubt that she will run in 2012. Others say that unless she can transform attitudes dramatically, she cannot hope to win a general election. Still, GOP strategist Phil Musser said, "if she ran for president today, she would be the Republican nominee."

Musser's comments are notable because he is an adviser to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), who is eyeing a 2012 candidacy of his own. Palin's political future remains "very much an open question," Musser said, "but the intensity that she brought to the ticket in 2008 hasn't faded, and one could argue that perhaps it's been enhanced."

A media magnet

The news media clearly cannot get enough of Palin. Her speech to the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville last weekend was carried live by the three major cable news channels. Her declaration the next morning on "Fox News Sunday" that she would not close the door to a 2012 campaign drew headlines everywhere, even though it did not represent a significant change in her position.

But she is more than catnip for the press and blogs. The tea party convention crowd gave her a rousing reception. The next day she drew about 8,000 people in a campaign appearance for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is in a high-stakes Republican primary race against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Perry adviser David Carney said that Palin's appearance was "the largest Republican primary event in the history of the state" and that the audience was built "without one dime of ads, mail or phone calls, just through social media, e-mails and the earned media off of that." Across the state, he said, "the coverage was wall to wall."

That she is a force within the party is indisputable, but her power is not easily quantifiable. She has taken sides in several GOP primaries -- in Texas, Kentucky, Arizona (for McCain) -- but how much those endorsements have meant in extra support isn't clear from the polls.

Democrats regard Palin as mostly a Republican problem, someone capable of throwing the Washington political community into a lather with a Facebook posting or a tweet, but not yet a credible potential presidential candidate or leader of a broad-based opposition. They also think her embrace of the tea party movement is as risky as it is beneficial for the GOP because it puts the party too much on the side of anger and could turn off middle-of-the-road voters who want more bipartisan cooperation.

Palin has many detractors, even within the GOP. They deride the content of her tea party speech as being long on grievance but short on substance. They mock her for the notes scribbled on her palm during that appearance and what they see as inconsistencies in her statements.

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