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Joe Miller's primary showing reveals Sarah Palin's continuing sway over Alaska

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 12:34 PM

WASILLA, ALASKA -- On a recent afternoon here, Karen Adams wheeled a shopping cart packed with meat, pineapples and cereal boxes around a supermarket as she talked about Sarah Palin's presence in Alaska.

"I used to see her all the time," said Adams, 34, who proudly voted for Palin as mayor and then governor and still regularly bumped into Palins' parents at the post office. "I don't see her these days."

Palin may have withdrawn from official life in Alaska, but the surprisingly strong showing in Tuesday's GOP Senate primary by Joe Miller, the long-shot candidate she backed over Lisa Murkowski, made it clear to the entire country that she still exercises great influence in her home state.

(Video: Watch Joe Miller on ABC's 'Top Line')

This matters for Palin's aspirations outside of Alaska, too.

Alaska is central to the political imagery, folksy charm and outsider credentials of Palin. In her introductory speech to national politics during the Republican National Convention she referred to herself as a "gal who knows the North Slope of Alaska." The bus she rode across the country on her book tour featured Palin beaming in front of Alaska's snowcapped mountains and spruce-spotted hills. More recently, she coined the term "mama grizzlies" to describe women who want to protect the nation from "fundamental transformation," because there are grizzly bears "in Alaska." Her upcoming TV show is called "Sarah Palin's Alaska."

By endorsing Miller on Facebook, boosting him on Twitter and making robo-calls for him against the heavily favored establishment candidate, Palin risked sacrificing the founding pillar of her political creation myth. Instead, preliminary results from Tuesday's election showed Miller ahead, 45,909 votes to 43,949 votes. According to the Alaska Division of Elections, more than 16,000 absentee ballots were requested and fewer than half had been returned. Whether he ultimately prevailed or not was beside the point. Palin, whose presidential and political aspirations are still undetermined, had demonstrated that the strength of her base is not.

"Within conservative politics in Alaska she is still a very formidable force," Miller said in a recent interview. "She's certainly a net positive to any candidate running for office."

This was not the consensus view leading up to the election.

"I like Sarah," Republican Don Young, who has represented all of Alaska in the House of Representatives for 40 years, said in a July interview. "What pull she's got, I don't know."

Alaska's Democratic and Republican senators were more certain that Palin, who in the lower 48 states is considered the state's most prominent politician, was political history.

"Palin was moments in time," Sen. Mark Begich said in a downtown Anchorage coffee shop, also in July. He called it a "total misperception" that the former governor had any influence over politics in the state. "She's not establishment. I'm not sure what she is. She has a higher negative now than she's ever had. She's a net negative. I think for a lot of people, she quit. And Alaskans are not quitters."

Murkowski, who was vexed by Palin's endorsement of Miller, which was widely seen as motivated not just by Todd Palin's friendship with Miller but by Palin's dislike of the Murkowski family, had sought to put it more diplomatically.

"If you ask Alaskans, they will talk about all of the politicians that represent them," Murkowski said during a July campaign swing to North Pole, outside of Fairbanks. Her father, Frank Murkowski, lost the governor's mansion to Palin in 2006. "This is the first election since Governor Palin has stepped down from office, and it's her first series of elections across the country where she has weighed in, and it remains to be seen how that will play out in the state."

Not anymore.

From governor to kingmaker?

Last July, Palin announced that she would be abandoning the governor's mansion to protect the state from the costs of politically motivated lawsuits against her. Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, she said, would be inaugurated at the Governor's Picnic at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks on July 25. Next, she signed on with Fox, launched the book tour, raised PAC money and bestowed endorsements on like-minded candidates.

Exactly one year after Parnell took office, Palin's successor returned to Pioneer Park on the morning of July 25 with his family. Of the hundreds gathered, hardly anyone noticed him.

Parnell donned a blue apron and took his place in front of an aluminum tray piled high with hamburger patties for picnic-goers, with whom he engaged in wooden nods and hellos. He did generate a ripple of excitement when his prongs flattened a yellow jacket.

"I have the greatest amount of respect for Governor Palin and I've seen her family dragged through the press and the media and I really don't want to be a part of it," Parnell said in an interview behind the grills. "I only want to do things that honor her."

He was less kind to the establishment families who had ruled Alaska for decades.

"That generation that founded this state is passing," said Parnell, who lost to Young in the 2008 congressional primary. "And we want to adhere to their principles, but certainly a new generation is coming up. You see it at all levels; we have 29-year-old mayors. It's just the natural transition."

Palin's role as the potential kingmaker of that new generation made for some awkward meetings at the end of the picnic. Murkowski and her husband, Verne Martell, who had been tasting barbeque on the other side of the park, cautiously greeted Parnell, the Palin loyalist, and his wife, Sandy.

Across the park, Joe Miller, bearded and baritone-voiced, bantered with a clutch of supporters holding signs. When the coast was clear and Parnell and Murkowski had parted, he got in line for a hamburger.

"It's clear that there are a lot of people in the state that support and respect Sarah Palin since the presidential race," Miller said. "It is equally clear that there are folk that no longer support her."

"There is a ruling family and that has been reflected in the generational politics of the Murkowski family. Lisa's appointment by her father reflects that. It's power perpetuated not just by family but by special interests," he said. "Palin is absolutely outside of that. She certainly came from outside of that mold when she ran for governor. In fact it was her campaign that cracked the establishment."

Still in the spotlight

Palin's show of strength may also give life to those who live off her fame.

Levi Johnston, Palin's near-son-in-law and persistent tormentor, has sought to exploit his personal relationship with Palin's family for Palin-like fame. He sold news of his short-lived engagement to Palin's daughter, Bristol, to celebrity magazines and parlayed his 15 minutes of fleshy fame in Playgirl into a reality show, the gimmick of which is that he is running for Palin's old job as the mayor of Wasilla.

The Johnston brain trust is housed in a drab office building across from Anchorage's Alaska State Legislature headquarters and next to the Pioneer Bar and Gaslight Lounge. At the end of a dim hallway, a window is papered with newspaper clips about Tank Jones, Johnston's agent. Jones shares the office with Johnston's lawyer, Rex Butler, and a sign behind their shared reception desk reads "You have the right to remain silent. ... Use it!"

While Johnston is using his candidacy for office in Alaska to gain publicity for his aspirations in Hollywood, Palin didn't want Alaskan politics to get in the way of her own aspirations. Miller's surprising showing allows her the best of both worlds. She gets to be a player without having to play.

Palin made an appearance with other Alaskan dignitaries at the funeral of Ted Stevens this month, but for the most part, the former governor lays low. Her house is hidden by a tall brown fence Palin erected for privacy after a reporter rented the home next door. An impressive white satellite dish rises above the studio where Palin can do her live television hits. And at the foot of the gravel road leading to Palin's house, there is a large Joe Miller campaign billboard.

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