Fix Pick: Palin’s Rocky Return to Alaska

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin struggles to adjust to life back in Alaska.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin struggles to adjust to life back in Alaska.

For any politician on the losing end of a bid for national office re-acclimating to their previous life can be a rough road.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry struggled to find his place in the Senate following his loss to George W. Bush in 2004, and then vice presidentAl Gore grew a beard and went into semi-seclusion after Bush beat him in 2000.

The adjustment is even more difficult when the politician has been plucked from relative obscurity and must return there — ala former Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle or, more recently, Sarah Palin.

No presidential or vice presidential candidate has risen (and, some would argue, fallen) as fast as the Alaska governor who went from an unknown to the second most famous politician in the world behind only President Barack Obama.

In a terrific piece in today’s paper, the Post’s Michael Leahy documents the unsteady return of Palin (he calls it a “bumpy homecoming”) to the Last Frontier and a decidedly smaller political stage.

Much of Palin’s awkwardness — Leahy describes a bipartisan retreat of Alaska state Senator she attended in which, when asked to list her priorities, she responded: “I feel like you guys are always trying to put me on the spot” — is the result of her being a servant of two masters: the people of Alaska and the national conservative base.

The former are the people who elected her in a sweeping vote of confidence in 2006 and who would be asked to do the same in 2010 — if she decides to run for re-election. Among this group, Palin’s approval ratings have fallen from the stratospheric levels she enjoyed before her cameo on the national stage but they remain in the 60s — perfectly respectable for any statewide elected official.

The latter group are far more important to Palin’s political future as they will likely play an outsized role in choosing the next presidential nominee of the party. Assuming the nominating calendar stays the same as it was in 2008 (a big assumption), two of the first three contests — the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary — will give a major edge to the most conservative candidate.

And, late January polling by Rasmussen Reports shows a majority of Republican voters (55 percent) believe that Palin is the right model for the party going forward while just 24 percent said the same of 2008 nominee John McCain (Ariz.)

Keeping her role as the conservative standard-bearer is critical to Palin’s chances at winning the GOP nomination in 2012 (it’s why she endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry in his primary race against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison) but it also runs counter to the non-partisan problem solver image she built during her first years in office.

“Some Alaska Democrats and Republicans wonder whether Palin, given her new stature among social conservatives who are urging her to run for president, will feel compelled to invest more capital” in two anti-abortion measures working their way through the state legislature, writes Leahy.

What’s clear in Leahy’s piece — and in conversations the Fix has with operatives of both partisan stripes in the course of any given day — is that Palin is simultaneously divisive and appealing as a politician; even for those who profess to despise her, they can’t help but consume news about her.

Palin adviser Joe Balash put it thusly: “She walks into a room and things change. She just has that ‘it’ — whatever that ‘it’ is.”

Need evidence? Leahy’s story has already drawn nearly 650 comments — ranging the spectrum from super-supportive to angrily opposed.

Palin polarizes. It remains to be seen whether that trait is the key to her future successes or the hurdle that holds her back.

Chris Cillizza
Washington Post

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