The Sunday Take

McCain understudy Sarah Palin is now the star

By Dan Balz
Sunday, March 28, 2010

John McCain and Sarah Palin were back together again Friday. His presidential campaign was floundering when he first reached out to her. Now, facing a challenge from within his party as he seeks reelection to the Senate, McCain has turned to her again to help bail him out. But what a difference.

Their national campaign together ended badly for both, topped by a flurry of leaks dumping on the former Alaska governor and, since then, nasty accusations between the senator's camp and hers over the conduct of it. Whatever happens now, the reappearance of McCain and Palin on the same stage illustrates how much things have changed since 2008.

For starters, the understudy is now the star. A majority of Americans may think Palin is not qualified to be president, but the GOP faithful love her, as does cable television. Cable news was fixed on Palin as she delivered her introduction of McCain at a rally in Tucson on Friday afternoon. Minutes after McCain took the microphone, they cut away from the rally for other news.

Challenged from the right

More important are the forces unleashed since President Obama took office. The Republican Party has begun a comeback after two consecutive defeats, fueled to a great extent by a grass-roots tea party movement. These tea partiers appear determined to deal the president and his Democratic Party a crippling defeat in November. But the movement also threatens to devour some prominent members of the GOP establishment, McCain included.

The Arizona senator has been challenged from the right in the Republican primary by former representative J.D. Hayworth, who is hoping to return to Washington by capitalizing on McCain's long-standing difficulties with the GOP base.

Which is why McCain needs Palin's blessing. Seventy-one percent of conservative Republicans and 60 percent of Americans who have a positive impression of the tea party movement view her favorably, according to a newly released Washington Post poll. That is in sharp contrast to Palin's image nationally. Just 37 percent of Americans view her favorably, compared with 55 percent who view her unfavorably -- 41 percent strongly so.

McCain has company in the constellation of threatened GOP elected officials. In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist, once one of the most popular politicians in his state, has seen his hopes of moving from the governor's mansion to the Senate crumble in the face of a challenge from a young, charismatic conservative named Marco Rubio. Once the clear leader, Crist now trails in the polls.

In Utah, Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a solid conservative who has worked across party lines in his chamber, faces multiple Republican challengers in his reelection bid. Party caucuses last week suggested clear anti-Bennett sentiment, and he is running scared.

McCain, Crist and Bennett are in trouble because in one way or another they have riled the most conservative wing of their party -- either by supporting the bailout of the financial industry, by favoring comprehensive immigration reform, as McCain did, or, in Crist's case, by speaking kindly of Obama's stimulus plan -- and appearing with the new president -- just as it was becoming GOP doctrine to oppose Obama by all means possible.

What happens in these contests will reflect individual circumstances and personalities, but collectively the challenges speak to the broader potential problem for the GOP as it grapples with how to deal with the tea party movement. The question is, does the tail now wag the dog?

Tea party movement

The nation is divided on that question. According to a new Post poll, about a quarter of the country thinks the tea party movement has too much influence on the GOP, and another quarter believes it has too little. About four in 10 Americans said the movement's influence is about right, and the rest had no opinion. The Post poll found that Americans now have as favorable an impression of the tea party movement as they do of the entire Republican Party.

Party leaders have viewed the tea party movement warily. No GOP leader wants to turn off the energy that could provide a decisive advantage in voter turnout in November. But the tea party movement has also brought demands for purity to the GOP family, as well as expressions of intolerance and, at times, destructive behavior.

All that was on display last week. GOP leaders were quick to denounce threats of violence against supporters of the health-care overhaul as well as the most repulsive language used against some Democratic lawmakers over the weekend on Capitol Hill. But they were equally quick to criticize the Democrats for what they said was an attempt to brand the entire conservative movement by the actions of a few on the fringe.

Palin echoed that theme Friday, describing as "B.S. coming from the mainstream media lately about us inciting violence."

"Don't let the conversation be diverted," she told the crowd. "Don't let a distraction like that get you off track."

What kind of Republican Party will emerge from the midterm elections? A party built entirely on protest and opposition or a party with a positive vision and a program for governing? The more conservative the party has become, the more this tension has confounded Republican elected officials in Washington.

For much of his career in Washington, McCain sought to build bridges between the parties. Now, in Obama's Washington, he has joined those in his party at the barricades, not only out of genuine opposition to many of Obama's initiatives but also with an obvious instinct for survival. Whether that will be enough to allow him to return to Washington isn't known.

In his race against Hayworth, he has turned to Palin to build a bridge for him within his party. It is a measure of what has happened -- to McCain and his party -- that just two years after he was the GOP nominee for president, he now needs Palin more than ever to vouch for him.

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