By Dan Balz
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.
Her explanation overlooked the fact that Palin had earlier described the symbol as a bull's-eye.
The "Take Back the 20" Web site was removed over the weekend.
Palin advisers were asked Monday for comment by the former governor, but Palin did not respond. On her Facebook page, a lively debate about the controversy erupted, with more than 10,000 comments.
Palin may be more aggressive in her language than some other politicians, but she is hardly the only person to use martial rhetoric or imagery in the heat of a political campaign. Such talk is common on both sides and is one reason there have been calls since Saturday for restraint and a change in the discourse.
Last fall, to show his separation from President Obama, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) aired a television commercial that included footage of him firing a rifle shot into a copy of the cap-and-trade energy bill that was pinned, targetlike, on a tree.
On Monday, Manchin said he probably wouldn't use the ad in today's post-Tucson environment and called for the nation to come together. About the ad, he said, "The act of a deranged madman who commits a horrific act should not and cannot be confused with a metaphor about a piece of legislation. I have never targeted an individual, and I never would."
But Palin is a lightning rod for criticism, especially from the left, almost no matter what she says. Keith Appell, a Republican strategist who works closely with conservative organizations, said the fact that Palin has found herself enveloped in this controversy combines "a predisposition on the left to feel threatened by her" and the media's exploitation of her celebrity status to attract readers or viewers.
He said Palin needs allies who can "point out repeatedly that the cross hairs are irrelevant. The only thing that's relevant is what Jared Loughner was influenced by, and according to his posting and his videos, there's not an iota of evidence that he was even aware of these things. So you need allies out there saying that."
He also said Palin could help herself by calling on people "to take a breath and let the investigation proceed" as a way to lower temperatures and put the focus back on the suspect.
Politico's Jonathan Martin wrote Monday that Palin may soon have to decide "whether she wants to be Ronald Reagan or Rush Limbaugh" as she contemplates her future.
Palin allies point to language and imagery used by some critics on the left as evidence of a double standard. But John Weaver, a GOP strategist, said Palin is being held to a different standard precisely because she may have presidential aspirations.
"You can't put the actions of this insane person on her doorstep or anyone's doorstep," he said in Palin's defense. But, he added, "having said that, there's a difference between how people judge the conduct of a blogger and a political leader or someone who may want to run for president of the United States."