WASILLA, Alaska – Though the long knives are out for her in the aftermath of the sweeping defeat suffered by the Republican presidential ticket, Sarah Palin has signaled she has no intention of fading quietly from the national scene back into Arctic anonymity.
Palin, who captivated Americans with her meteoric rise from small-town mayor to Alaska governor to surprise Republican vice presidential nominee, still generates broad enthusiasm among the conservative base and is considered an ascending star by Beltway conservatives.
But amid the wreckage from the Obama-led Democratic hurricane, there is no obvious route back to the national spotlight for Palin or easy course to chart for a possible presidential run in 2012.
Palin told CNN Wednesday morning "2012 sounds so far off that I can't even imagine what I'd be doing then."
Still, after casting her vote early Tuesday morning here in her hometown, where homemade “Palin 2012” signs occasionally appeared at political events in the last few weeks, Palin hinted she was considering repackaging herself for her next foray onto the national stage by hewing closer to the image of good-government pragmatist that she projected here, rather than the fire-breathing partisan that emerged on the presidential campaign trail.
“You know, if there is a role in national politics, it won’t be so much partisan,” Palin told reporters. “My efforts have always been here in the state of Alaska to get everybody to unite and work together to progress this state … it certainly would be a uniter type of role.”
Tone aside, it’s unclear what path Palin might follow back to national prominence.
She has another two years left as governor, but it won’t be easy to maintain a share of the national spotlight or bolster her resume from the Alaska governor’s office. That’s because she returns home to lower approval ratings than before her star turn in the Lower 48, not to mention the potential of suspicious and envious lawmakers, a state ethics law that may bar her from cashing in on a book deal or lectures, and a whole lot of Alaskans wondering whether she’s just looking for the next step in her political career.
There are a few recognizable steps for Palin could take after her first gubernatorial term ends.
She has proven to be a huge fundraising draw and could follow the Mitt Romney model.
Romney, who Palin could face in the 2012 Republican presidential derby, spent 2005 and 2006 – the last two years of his sole term as governor of Massachusetts – crisscrossing the country wooing the GOP base and raising money to dole out to Republican candidates in key primary states. He also used the cash to pay a core group of political operatives, who at the conclusion of his gubernatorial term became the nucleus of his unsuccessful bid for the 2008 nomination.
That route would allow Palin to cash in on her newfound fame by signing a book deal, hitting the lecture circuit or doing radio commentaries – which would boost her public profile, though it probably wouldn’t quell lingering concerns about her experience that plagued her vice presidential bid.
If she wanted to burnish her executive bona fides, she could run for reelection in 2010.
But don’t count on that, said close friend Judy Patrick, who served on the Wasilla city council while Palin was mayor and ran Palin’s unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor in 2002, after Palin was term-limited out of the mayor’s office.
“We’d have to be delusional to think that she’s just going to come back here and live in obscurity and stay the governor of Alaska,” said Patrick, who compared Tuesday’s loss to the 2002 setback, which paved the way for Palin’s 2006 gubernatorial win. “So I’m certain that there are bigger things for her future, but I don’t know what the timing would be.”
There’s plenty of buzz in Alaska political circles that Palin has her eye on a Senate seat, which would give her a platform from which to garner national press, boost her foreign policy credentials (an area of particular concern during her V.P. bid) and build a Washington network crucial to a presidential campaign.
She may get a shot at a Senate seat sooner than the normal rotation would dictate, if Alaska’s embattled 40-year incumbent Sen. Ted Stevens, a fellow Republican, is able to pull out a surprise victory in his reelection bid against his Democratic challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
After Stevens was convicted last week on seven felony counts of hiding gifts, Begich jumped out to a lead that one poll measured at 22 points. Yet Thursday evening, Stevens was clinging to a slim lead as votes continued to be counted. If Stevens wins, but then is expelled by the Senate – as the chamber’s leaders have predicted– Palin could run in a special election for his seat as soon as next year.
If Stevens loses, Palin could challenge the state’s other senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, in the primary when her seat comes up in 2010.
In 2002, Palin was disappointed when she was passed over for appointment to the seat by Murkowski’s father, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, who had vacated it to serve as governor. Instead, Murkowski tapped his daughter, prompting a nepotism controversy that Palin wielded to unseat Frank Murkowski in the 2006 GOP gubernatorial primary.
But it would be tough for Palin to unseat Lisa Murkowski in an election, asserted Ivan Moore, an Alaska pollster whose surveys have shown Palin’s approval ratings dropping from a high of 89 percent in mid-2007 to 64 percent in his most recent poll.
“It’s gotten to the point now where Sarah and Lisa’s numbers are really quite similar, so it’d be competitive,” he said, adding, “There was a time when there wasn’t anyone in the state who could take Sarah on and survive.”
Moore traces Palin’s slide, which his surveys show have mostly halted, to confusion over her brand, which was built around a clear, anti-corruption, ethical-government message.
“Sarah Palin, in the year and a half she spent being governor up here, was really very pragmatic, middle of the road, and did a pretty good job maintaining her approval ratings among Democrats and across the ideological spectrum,” Moore said. “Then she went down south and became a very different Sarah Palin on the campaign trail, and people are conflicted as to which the real Sarah Palin was.”
Plus, Moore said Palin’s public image suffered when she wasdinged for an ethics violation in the so-called “Troopergate” scandal, even though a report released by her administration Monday afternoon absolved her.
Neither Troopergate, nor her stumbles on the campaign trail or recent revelations about her bucking guidance and directives from the brain trust of her running mate John McCain will hinder a potential Palin 2012 presidential bid, said GOP strategist Craig Shirley, provided Palin publicly focuses on governing Alaska, while quietly assembling a solid team for her second act on the national stage.
“In this day and age, in the hyper-speed world of communications, very rarely anymore does somebody in politics become reduced to a punch line,” he said, cautioning that Palin must be careful not to squander the appeal she built with the Republican base.
“A star was definitely born, it’s just a question of how brightly and how long that star can burn,” he said. “If she surrounds herself with (Republican National Committee) kids who don’t have a grounding in conservative philosophy and it just becomes about re-rolling her out with a series of stunts, then she won’t be successful. If she wants to be taken as a serious player, then she will reach out to the serious people in the conservative movement, in the Republican party, who understand what Republicanism should be about,” Shirley said. “She hasn’t been particularly well served by the staff that was assigned to her by the McCain campaign,” he added.
Any benefits from a short Senate stint would be outweighed by the risk of compromising her position as an outsider, Shirley contended, comparing her path back to Ronald Reagan’s winning the presidency in 1980 after narrowly losing the 1976 Republican nomination.
Shirley, whose 2005 book chronicles the significance of Reagan’s 1976 bid, said, “He used those four years very strategically,” by honing his positions advocating tax cuts and a harsh line toward the Soviet Union.
Palin may have her work cut out for her in Juneau without the extra homework.
She’s already butted heads with many top Republican lawmakers, and her campaign trail rhetoric likely offended some of the Democrats she relied on to pass her signature initiatives, including ethics reforms and a windfall profits tax on oil companies, according to Les Gara, a Democratic state representative from Anchorage.
“There are a lot of bruised egos,” he said, singling out the McCain-Palin campaign’s attacks on the legislature’s bipartisan Troopergate investigation. “There are some legislators – frankly, mostly folks on her side of the aisle -- who have a much bigger heartache with her than Democrats do,” he contended.
Lisa Murkowski, after attending a Sunday rally for Stevens at a Wasilla hockey complex Palin built during her days as mayor, told Politico, “The governor will have a task ahead of her in rebuilding some relationships. I would hope that she is going to give her all to being a great governor. And if she is a great governor, that enhances her ability to do whatever it is that she may want to pursue, whether it is governor for another term, whether it’s the presidency in 2012 or whether it’s the possibility of a federal seat.”
Andy Barr contributed to this report.