By Karen Tumulty and Peter Wallsten
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 12:00 AM
The presidential-quality stagecraft was there: an American flag over Sarah Palin's left shoulder and another over her heart. So was the rhetorical polish, with its invocations of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, God and Ronald Reagan.
And after four days of near silence, the timing guaranteed that Palin would be written into the story line of President Obama's visit to comfort grief-stricken Tucson after a massacre there.
But if the statement that Palin put out Wednesday was designed to tamp down the criticism of her incendiary style of politics, it turned out to have the opposite effect.
Within minutes of the video and its accompanying Facebook post going viral on the Internet, all of that was subsumed by a new furor over Palin's choice of two words to describe her critics in the media: "blood libel."
Her choice of that provocative phrase underscored the challenge and the contradiction that confront the Republican former Alaska governor as she undertakes a new strategy to retool her image and elevate her stature in preparation for a possible presidential run in 2012.
A presidential campaign would pit Palin's ambition against her impulses and test her ability to expand her reach beyond the narrow slice of the population that rallies behind her.
Palin has often invited controversy and helped to shape the national debate by using words as blunt instruments - such as her memorable accusation that Obama has made a practice of "palling around with terrorists" and her contention that his health-care law would include "death panels. " It has been a hallmark of her rise and source of her political star power.
Her statement Wednesday brought yet another visceral response, though this time, it was one Palin did not necessarily intend or expect.
"Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn," Palin said in the video. "That is reprehensible."
Blood libel - a phrase that other conservatives have also used in recent days - was her way of decrying liberal critics who had tried to draw a connection between Palin's campaign rhetoric and the Tucson shootings.
But it also has a specific, ugly historical context. Blood libel is the centuries-old anti-Semitic myth that Jews use the blood of Christian children for rituals such as baking unleavened bread during Passover. It was used to justify persecution of Jews.
Her choice of words immediately overshadowed the point she was trying to make.
"Her blessing is also her problem: When the spotlight comes easily, you don't get to make unforced errors," said Noam Neusner, who was a speechwriter and Jewish community outreach adviser to former president George W. Bush.
Palin drew swift, fierce condemnation from liberals and some Jewish groups.
"A particularly heinous term," said David A. Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council. It had additional resonance because the apparent target of the Tucson attacks was a Jewish congresswoman.
But the defense of her was also vehement, and from some unexpected sources.
Liberal Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz told the blog biggovernment.com that blood libel has taken on "broad metaphorical meaning" and said there was "nothing improper and certainly nothing anti-Semitic in Sarah Palin using the term to characterize what she reasonably believes are false accusations."
Although Palin has often been at the center of political storms over the two-and-a-half years since she emerged on the national scene, her allies say the onslaught she has faced since the Tucson shootings has shaken her like none before.
Palin officials confirmed a report by ABC News that Palin has received an unprecedented number of death threats since Saturday's shootings and has been in conversations with security officials about the matter. They declined to provide further details.
Much of the criticism has centered on a map that Palin put on her Web site during the 2010 elections, which used cross-hair symbols to depict the districts of 20 congressional Democrats she had targeted for defeat. One of those was a Tucson shooting victim, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.), who had said at the time that Palin's map was an invitation to violence.
However, as more facts emerged about the shooting suspect, Jared Loughner, it grew increasingly apparent that the demons that drove him had little, if any, connection to partisan politics.
On the video, Palin appeared more subdued than usual - drawn and older-looking, her eyes noticeably red.
"I've spent the past few days reflecting on what happened and praying for guidance," she said.
The tragedy in Tucson occurred as the former governor was diving into domestic and foreign policy issues in an effort to build a more substantive political identity. The strategy, in which Palin intends to step up her involvement in public policy debates and embark on overseas trips to nations such as Israel, is in its early stages.
Last month, she toured earthquake-ravaged Haiti with Franklin Graham, who runs a charity there, and whose father, evangelist Billy Graham, has been the counselor of presidents since Harry Truman.
Aides framed her new approach as a direct response to critics, particularly some Republicans, who in recent months have dismissed her as a celebrity and questioned her intellectual heft.
Palin's team, a small and discreet circle of advisers who have gained her trust, knows that she has a long way to go. They say she has been speaking out for months on substantive issues but has received little credit from Washington-based journalists and the Republican establishment.
Palin has been working to brand herself a "tea party hawk," meaning she supports shrinking government but argues against cuts at the Pentagon. In a time of economic turmoil and anger at Wall Street, she set out to promote free markets but criticizes big corporations that sought political power to tilt the playing field in their favor.
As an early experiment, when Palin delivered an address in Phoenix late last year on monetary policy, her team leaked excerpts to the conservative National Review. Her comments - criticizing a Federal Reserve bond-buying program intended to stimulate the economy - drew widespread attention, putting her in the middle of a complex policy debate. It also prompted some GOP strategists to recognize that even the lofty Fed could be a populist political issue.
Her Wednesday statement was another opportunity to demonstrate her seriousness and speak to those beyond her enthusiastic base. Instead, with two words, she wound up back in a familiar place.
"Whatever explanation she could give to use such a loaded term, the truth is she shouldn't have," Neusner said. "She doesn't have to turn the other cheek; she was, in fact, maligned in a gross and unfair way. But she could have said everything she said without that phrase.
"When people are trying to be leaders," he added, "they need to attract supporters, not repel them."
Staff writers William Wan and Dan Balz contributed to this report.