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Can Sarah Palin translate celebrity into real political power?

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010; A01

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.

But as one GOP strategist, who declined to be identified in order to speak more freely about her, put it, "Palin has a following that is thoroughly uninterested in experiences on issues and instead is completely motivated by attributes. They'll take her authenticity over her ideas every day of the week."

"No matter what she does, she has an important role in the Republican Party," said Fred Malek, who has advised Palin over many months. "She relates to and embraces the grass roots in a way nobody else does."

For those thinking of running for the GOP nomination in 2012, Palin's presence must be noted but not engaged politically or substantively. "To do anything, to go out and challenge her, just does not make any sense right now," said another Republican strategist who is advising a prospective 2012 candidate. The risk, this strategist said, is that a candidate could alienate voters who, if Palin does not run, will be looking for someone else. "And it's clear she holds a grudge and doesn't forget it," he said.

But the others should be paying close attention, Castellanos said. "Mitt Romney, Pawlenty and every other Republican contender ought to be worried," he said. "An authentic, populist voice has emerged as the anti-Obama and that voice doesn't belong to the Republican establishment. It belongs to Sarah Palin."

Expanded political team

Since leaving the governorship last summer, Palin has taken steps to expand her political operation, which was derided even by those in the Republican Party as thin and inexperienced.

Tim Crawford, who has been working in GOP politics for 30 years, serves as the treasurer of her political action committee. Others who are helping include Randy Scheunemann, who offers foreign policy advice as he did during her vice presidential campaign. Longtime adviser Meg Stapleton continues to serve as principal liaison to the news media.

Palin told "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace that she receives a daily e-mail from advisers outlining domestic and international developments. Asked by Wallace if she is more knowledgeable about domestic and foreign affairs now than she was two years ago, she replied: "Well, I would hope so. Yes, I am."

Those in Palin's circle said there is no single person to whom she turns most often for advice. There is no Karl Rove to George W. Bush, or Lee Atwater to Bush's father. "It's not like there's this last person she talks to before she goes to bed to get her marching orders," said one person knowledgeable about her operation who declined to be identified in order to share information. "It's her instincts and her thinking that's driving this."

Palin continues to express surprise to some of those close to her about the attention she attracts, most recently her tea party convention experience. But she is keenly aware, they say, of the poll numbers that show her as unelectable in a general election at this point.

Where there is disagreement is in reading between the lines of her recent activities to discern whether there is a budding candidacy in the works or the playing out of something that has brought Palin national celebrity and commercial success.

Some strategists see her efforts as intended to make sure that the door to a candidacy remains open until she is ready to make the decision. Others interviewed for this story think she is not doing all she can or should to develop relationships in key states, either during her book tour or on other travel. "When she was on her book tour, people wanted to meet with her, but she didn't do any of that," said one person who has been watching her closely.

A recent Gallup poll showed a wide-open race for the Republican nomination in 2012. Asked to name their preferred candidate, 14 percent of Republicans named Romney; 11 percent said Palin. But 42 percent offered no opinion, and the rest were scattered among a slew of other candidates.

As for the widespread lack of confidence in her ability to be president, one adviser said Palin has time to turn that around if she decides she wants to run in 2012. Another Republican said that if she chooses not to run, she can play an influential role in determining who wins.

For now, she remains the Wasilla-based mother who is rapidly becoming the embodiment of the anger and disenchantment that has been rising since Obama took office. As good as that might make people feel, that is far from a willingness to entrust their futures, and the country's, to her.

"Her challenge is to fill in the substantive blanks in a way that demonstrates that capacity, without losing her uniqueness and her role as provocateur," said Tom Rath, a GOP strategist who has been part of Romney's political team. "Not easy."

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