The Palin puzzle: Just what is she running for?


As Sarah Palin begins a book tour Tuesday in Phoenix that will take her to the early presidential voting states of Iowa and South Carolina, the former Alaska governor seems to have set her sights on something grander than mere wealth and fame.

After all, in two short years, she has become a political star, a publishing star and now a television star. So what’s left to conquer?

Well, maybe the White House.

In a rare newspaper interview, Palin confirmed to the New York Times Magazine that she is discussing with her family whether she should run for president. During a segment on the special “Barbara Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People,” scheduled to air Dec. 9, she told Walters she believed she could beat President Obama.


Which leaves the political world engaged in one of its favorite sports: guessing what Sarah Palin will do next.

“I think that when she says that she is considering a run for the White House, everyone should take her seriously,” said Nicolle Wallace, President George W. Bush’s communications director and a senior advisor on the McCain-Palin campaign. “She is the most important person on the Republican stage right now.”

But Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, who helped Palin prepare for her debate with Joe Biden, was skeptical. “I think the idea of a Sarah Palin candidacy is more attractive than the reality of one,” he said. “Right now she’s got all the fame, money and influence one could possibly ever wish for with no accountability. Why throw all that away for the misery of a campaign?”

But in politics, he added, “ambition often overrides common sense.”

As the midterm election fades into memory and Republicans gear up for a wide-open 2012 presidential campaign, Palin will have to decide in a matter of months whether she will seek the GOP nomination.

She made a well-received speech at an annual GOP fundraiser in September in Iowa. But Republicans there said she has not begun to reach out to the state’s Republicans, as have other GOP presidential aspirants, including Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkanas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won Iowa’s Republican presidential caucuses in 2008.

Although Palin is scheduled to appear at a book signing in Des Moines on Saturday, she has not contacted or made plans to visit party officials, activists or donors.

Former First Lady Barbara Bush might have been channeling the Republican establishment when she dismissed Palin in an interview with Larry King that aired Monday. In response to a question about Palin, Bush replied, “I sat next to her once. Thought she was beautiful. And I think she’s very happy in Alaska, and I hope she’ll stay there.”

David Frum, the conservative writer, has dubbed such Republican pushback “Operation: Stop Palin.”

“The people who give the party money and make the party work are fearful of two things,” Frum said. “They are fearful of the kind of president she would be. They are also fearful that if she should lose, she would lose so badly that she would turn what should be a pretty good year for Republicans down ballot into a calamity.”

That fear is rooted in experience. Some Republicans blame Palin for Democrats hanging onto the Senate in the midterm election. Only six of her 10 Senate picks won. High-profile losses in Nevada ( Sharron Angle) and Delaware ( Christine O’Donnell) will haunt Republicans for some time. In the House, Palin had better luck: 37 of 52 candidates she endorsed won, helping Republicans regain control.

Critics have said that Palin’s eight-part hit reality show on TLC, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” for which she reportedly is earning $250,000 an episode, seems like an extended campaign video, although with unusually candid moments. (Meanwhile, her eldest daughter, Bristol, competed Monday in the finale of this season’s “Dancing with the Stars.” Despite modest scores from the show’s professional judges, Bristol survived week after week, some of the show’s fans contend, because of an orchestrated campaign by her mother’s supporters.)

“It’s a very curious path to the Oval Office, if that’s her ambition,” said Wallace, who used her experience with Palin as fodder for “Eighteen Acres,” a bestselling novel about the first female president. “She is speaking to this moment of American culture better than anyone including the American president. People want to see what you look like in your shorts at your computer. Perhaps her greatest calling is being an exhibitionist. It’s working for her. She’s raking in millions and her popularity is high.”

Indeed, Palin can dominate the news cycle with a simple tweet, something she did regularly before the midterm election. But as recently as last week, she was making waves. On Thursday, she tweeted, “This publishing world is LEAKING out-of-context excerpts of my book w/out my permission? Isn’t that illegal?”

She was instantly mocked. “That last tweet [by Palin] sums up in 140 characters why this person should never be allowed any authority over any police force ever,” Frum tweeted.

Yet on Saturday, a federal judge in New York ordered the website Gawker to take down the unauthorized excerpts it had posted of Palin’s second book, “America by Heart.” Like her first book, “Going Rogue,” “America by Heart” is expected to be a major bestseller. And like her 2009 book tour, she will visit red states such as Texas, Arizona and Oklahoma, or swing states like Ohio and Indiana, but avoid the blue states of California, New York and Illinois.

“People no doubt are excited about Sarah Palin,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a “tea party”-backed conservative who lost a bid for the Republican nomination for Iowa governor in June after Palin endorsed his primary opponent, Terry Brandstad. “I am not sure they are so excited about her running for president. She needs to convince the people of Iowa she could do it.”