Sarah Palin is giving indecision a bad name.
Not only can't she decide whether to run for president, this week she even waffled over whether to keep a date to speak at a "tea party" rally in Iowa on Sunday, a Sarah-palooza her devotees have been organizing for weeks.
Every other serious Republican presidential hopeful has already decided, one way or the other. Mitt Romney's been running for years. Rick Perry's been running for only three weeks, but he spent months laying the groundwork. Only Palin continues to dither, even though she says she thinks the nation would benefit from having more candidates.
"The more the merrier," she said last month when it became clear that Perry was in. "The more ideas that are debated out there, the better for the electorate. You all deserve good choices in this 2012 election."
But Palin? The former Alaska governor surfaces without warning every month or so, like the Loch Ness monster, to let her supporters know she still exists. She insists that she has what it takes to run for president — "that fire in the belly" — and that she believes she could win.
"That passion is real, it's sincere, because I love this country," she told Fox News last month.
But she never quite says yes or no.
"I'm still considering it," she said.
What's holding her back? "The impact on family," she said.
And can a decision wait much longer?
"August and September," she promised last month. "You do have to start laying out a plan if you are to be one to throw your hat in the ring."
There are plenty of people who want Palin to run.
She still places third in most national polls of Republican voters, behind Perry and Romney, and that might rise if she actually declared.
She has thousands of devoted fans who have organized grass-roots committees, set up websites and spent hours messaging one another in excitement after every hint of interest from their heroine.
There's Romney, who wouldn't mind seeing the hard-core tea party vote split three ways among Palin, Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
There are the moguls who own the nation's television news channels; they know the endless photogenic family drama of Sarah Palin is good for their ratings.
And there are reporters like me, who simply yearn to see how Palin would do in the scrum of a genuine GOP debate instead of the carefully chosen, friendly audiences she sticks to now.
But after the last few weeks, all of us — love-struck fans and cranky cynics alike — are losing hope.
By any rational interpretation of her behavior, Republican strategists say, Palin doesn't appear to intend to run, because she hasn't done any of the quiet but serious preparatory work that a potential candidate normally undertakes.
Two years ago, one of the elders of the Republican Party, former Richard Nixon aide Fred Malek, gave Palin some friendly advice on how to prepare for a presidential campaign. Malek told Palin, then still governor of Alaska, that she should do three things: finish at least one full term in office, master some tough subjects such as fiscal policy and foreign affairs (and give speeches to show it), and build a staff that could serve as the core of a campaign machine.
But Palin didn't do any of that. Instead, she has devoted herself to less-demanding activities that have kept her in the public eye and provided a handsome income besides. She wrote (or, more precisely, coauthored) a bestselling memoir that made at least $7 million. She starred in a television travelogue that earned her a reported $2 million. She makes $1 million a year from a three-year contract as an exclusive "contributor" to Fox News. And she has given dozens of speeches at rates that sometimes top $100,000 per appearance (although she agreed to do this weekend's tea party rally in Iowa for free, organizers say). That adds up to an average gross income of at least $5 million a year since she left her $125,000-a-year job as governor.
In addition, Palin's political action committee, SarahPAC, has raised more than $7 million since 2008, providing funds for her travel and staff as well as donations to candidates she favors.
As a private citizen, Palin doesn't have to disclose any of her personal income, of course. (Her aides did not respond to a request to confirm or correct the figures above.) But as a presidential candidate, she'd be under pressure to disclose more financial details, and she'd presumably have to give up charging for her speeches and her appearances on Fox News. The sacrifice she would make if she joined the presidential race would be tangible and large.
There's nothing wrong with earning money by writing books or giving after-dinner speeches. There's nothing wrong with hesitating before jumping into the grueling ordeal of a presidential campaign.
But there's something odd about a politician who says the country is in desperate trouble and calls on others to make the sacrifice of running for office, but shrinks from doing it herself.
That's the problem with Palin: She seems to want it both ways. She wants to be in the spotlight, but only if she's the one who decides when the light is on.
"It is a sign of enormous thin skin that if we speculate about her, she gets upset," said Karl Rove, the former strategist to President George W. Bush. "I suspect if we didn't speculate about her she'd be upset — and try and find a way to get us to speculate about her."
Every week that goes by, a Palin candidacy becomes more difficult to launch. Other candidates have hired many of the campaign professionals who would have made up her staff. Donors and fundraisers have begun committing to candidates already in the race. And her standing among ordinary GOP voters has been slowly sinking; in one recent survey, 39% of Republicans said she would be unacceptable as a nominee, a number exceeded only by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
Enough already. It's time for Palin to end the fan dance, let her forlorn suitors know whether she's ready to make a commitment and — if not — let the rest of the field get on with the race.