Palin caught in crosshairs map controversy after Tucson shootings

Jared Loughner, accused of trying to assassinate a Congresswoman and killing six others, appeared in court Monday. It was the nation's first look at the 22-year-old loner accused of trying to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 11:01 PM

In her more than two years on the national stage, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has proven to be a master of attention-grabbing quotes and vivid images. As a result, she finds herself at the center of a political and media controversy - unfairly in the estimation of her allies - after Saturday's shootings in Tucson.

The controversy, which may have caught the Republican by surprise, is the kind of test candidates commonly face in a presidential campaign. How she navigates it, several Republican strategists said Monday, could be a defining moment for her politically.

What makes her challenge unique is that it comes as a result of a national tragedy in which there is no known connection between anything Palin said or did and the alleged actions of Jared Loughner, who is accused of fatally shooting six and severely wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 13 others.

"It's absurd to point fingers at Palin, and people who are doing that are just as guilty of politicizing this tragedy as anyone else," said Todd Harris, a Republican strategist. "At the same time, to the degree that this is a so-called learning moment for the country, I think the public looks to its leaders and pretty quickly decides who has something to teach and who has something to learn. I think that Palin is missing an opportunity to show that she can be a leader at a higher level than she's been viewed before."

Part of Palin's political success owes to her knack for frontier imagery and provocative sound bites, as in the health-care debate when she tweeted after the bill had passed Congress, "Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!" But Palin is on the defensive at this moment because of her decision to make Giffords, who remains in critical condition after being shot in the head, one of 20 Democrats marked for defeat in the 2010 midterm elections.

Palin set up a Web site called "Take Back the 20," which included a map of the United States with cross hairs on congressional districts of Democratic candidates she had singled out for defeat.

The map drew immediate criticism. Among those who voiced disapproval was Giffords.

"We're on Sarah Palin's targeted list, but the thing is that the way she has it depicted has the cross hairs of a gun sight over our district," Giffords told MSNBC at the time. "When people do that, they've got to realize there's consequences to that action."

On Sunday, the issue of whether Palin was partly to blame for the tragedy in Tucson became the top question asked on Facebook. Criticism of Palin escalated across the Internet.

Palin has had little to say since the shootings. Her first response was a brief note of condolence posted Saturday on her Facebook page. On Monday, Glenn Beck told his radio audience that Palin sent him a message in which she said:

"I hate violence. I hate war. Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence. Thanks for all you do to send the message of truth and love and God as the answer."

The controversy gathered force when Rebecca Mansour, an adviser to Palin, told radio host Tammy Bruce that the criticism of Palin and her list was "obscene." She added that the target list was not meant as a reference to guns. "We never ever, ever intended it to be cross hairs," she said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company