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Palin returns home to a chillier Alaska

Murphy is a Times staff writer.

On election day, a smiling Sarah Palin touched down briefly on home turf at Wasilla City Hall to cast her vote, declaring how much she was looking forward to waking up in “transition mode” as vice president. Then she headed off to spend election night in Arizona with Sen. John McCain.

One day later, Palin was on a plane back to Alaska, this time to pick up where she left off before joining McCain’s presidential campaign: as the state’s overwhelmingly popular governor, praised for her bipartisanship by Democratic allies in the state Capitol, championed for her fight for ethics reform and presiding over a state with, thanks to soaring oil prices, a multibillion-dollar surplus.

But wait -- what fairy tale is that? After several months co-starring with its governor in one of the hardest-fought presidential campaigns in modern U.S. history, America’s 49th state bears little resemblance to the friendly, folksy place Palin left in August.

With her vice-presidential carriage turned back into a pumpkin, Palin faces a return to a state rife with hard feelings, a sagging budget and rising political uncertainty. Will its powerful veteran U.S. senator hold on to his job despite a felony corruption conviction? And what can Palin do about her home-grown political adversaries, some of them showing a gleeful appetite for torpedoing whatever national political ambitions the governor may harbor?

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Palin’s approval ratings in Alaska, once in the stratospheric 80% range, have tumbled to a mere mortal 65%. A minor dust-up over the firing of her former public safety commissioner has blossomed into two full “Troopergate” investigations, with some lawmakers threatening to lead off the coming legislative session by sending some of Palin’s senior aides to jail.

The state faces the potential of an operating deficit if oil prices go much below $63 a barrel. The heavy lifting to get Alaska’s natural-gas pipeline off the ground is going to have to go through a not-so-friendly new Democratic administration in Washington. And with a stronger Democratic majority in Congress, Palin likely will wait for the proverbial freeze-over before anyone drills in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

How she gets through the next few months is crucial to her future, analysts say, since Palin’s return to Alaska is an inevitable costume change before her national relaunch -- probably in 2012, or sooner if she decides to run for the U.S. Senate.

“She’s obviously been bitten,” said former Alaska Atty. Gen. John Havelock. “She’s seen Paris, you know?”

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A small crowd was chanting “2012! 2012!” as Palin’s plane touched down in Anchorage on Wednesday night, though the governor said she would be thinking more about getting her kids back in school than running for president.

“We’ll see what happens then,” she said. “I just thank God for this opportunity that I have to be your governor.”

Most Republican strategists are predicting that Palin will chalk up another couple of years of executive experience in Alaska and take the opportunity when appropriate to speak out on national issues.

“I think she’s got a great future,” said Kenneth L. Khachigian, attorney and senior advisor to President Reagan. “What she should do is go back and get resettled . . . and get sort of reoriented back to Alaska.”

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Khachigian counseled against even a suggestion that she might run for president next term. Instead, he said, Palin should “create a little suspense and mystery about her future.”

If Sen. Ted Stevens manages to hold on to his seat through the absentee ballot count but resigns or is forced out by censure, Palin could run for his seat almost immediately. Many here say Palin, in any case, could launch a national bid in 2010 with a primary challenge against Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

But before any of that can happen, Palin is in for a few months of fence-mending in Juneau and Anchorage -- not to mention Wasilla, where the national campaign dredged up half-forgotten enmities from Palin’s mayoral days over library books, driveway codes and sports stadiums, and suddenly made the Mocha Moose a much less friendly stop for a cuppa joe.

“There’s a lot of changed dynamics. The Sarah Palin who left isn’t the same one who’s coming back,” said Larry Persily, the state’s former lobbyist in Washington, D.C. “Alaskans saw a meaner Sarah Palin, a more divisive one who not only went out and made enemies, but did it with a smile and a wink. To many Alaskans, that’s not what they wanted. They wanted the old Sarah Palin, who didn’t say so many bad things about other people, didn’t pick as many fights.”

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Only days before Palin’s selection as McCain’s running mate, Democratic leaders in the Legislature like state Sen. Hollis French were singing her praises, congratulating the governor for going against her party to help them win passage of an oil production tax hike and push a North Slope gas pipeline project outside the control of major oil companies.

Then, almost overnight, the harmony stopped. French and his Democratic allies took up the Legislature’s aggressive Troopergate inquiry, and Palin suddenly refused to cooperate.

“Troopergate definitely tore the state apart,” said Democratic state Rep. Les Gara. He said he will seek contempt charges against 10 Palin aides and others who ignored the Legislature’s subpoenas in that inquiry.

There is lingering resentment in Alaska over the fate of Walt Monegan, a 33-year officer and chief of the Anchorage Police Department before being named, then fired, as Palin’s commissioner of public safety. The popular police officer became election season roadkill, as McCain-Palin campaign operatives publicly trashed Monegan’s job performance to inoculate the governor from scandal.

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“It’s unconscionable that an outside campaign organization which had no knowledge of the history, background or understanding of an Alaskan issue would come to our state to destroy the reputation and life of a dedicated Alaskan public servant,” former state House speaker Gail Phillips, a Republican, said after filing a formal protest Oct. 28 with the McCain campaign.

“There’s been a lot of pain, and a lot of ugly things happened in this election cycle that feel like they were politically motivated. It’s bothersome, and it’s going to take quite a bit of healing,” said state Sen. Fred Dyson, also a Republican.

Likewise, Palin’s role as attack dog against Barack Obama is not sitting well with the Democrats who were her allies in the Legislature. Some fear she may have alienated Washington at a time when Alaska needs federal help on its gas line and other projects.

“She can sort of redeem herself by going back to where she was,” Havelock said. “If she goes on with this pit bull thing, there’s going to be no cooperation with the Democrats. . . . She can’t go on being the fire-eating leader of the Republican right.”

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Meanwhile, in the short time she’s been away, the job of running Alaska has gotten harder.

Democrats will have to be brought into a leadership coalition once again in the state Senate, and even though U.S. Rep. Don Young, also caught up in the FBI’s corruption probe, and apparently Stevens have held on to their seats, Washington has made it clear that the era when Alaska enjoyed millions of dollars in federal largesse by way of budget earmarks is over.

In Juneau, Palin will have to defend her staff against lingering contempt or witness-tampering charges related to Troopergate, and answer new questions about her per diem reimbursements for nights spent at her home in Wasilla rather than in the state capital of Juneau. Fresh controversy also surrounds state reimbursements for travel by her children.

The state next year must establish the level of tax on North Slope gas and bring the world’s biggest oil companies into a single plan to build a pipeline to ship it.

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The problem, Persily points out, is that North Slope oil has slipped to about $62 a barrel, “and that’s not even enough to cover our spending for next year.”

Yet legislators appear willing to let bygones be bygones -- at least, if Palin is.

“Some of the people who are angry at the governor, and it’s a lot of Republicans among them, will hold grudges,” Gara said. “But most legislators don’t think like that.

“We don’t have to sort of break bread together,” he added. “But we’ve got to work together.”

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Palin has signaled that she too is ready to pick up where she left off.

“You know, if there is a role in national politics, it won’t be so . . . partisan,” she told reporters in Wasilla on Tuesday. “My efforts have always been here in the state of Alaska to get everybody to unite and work together and progress this state.”

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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