ANCHORAGE — In late March, a senior official from the Republican Governors Association headed for Alaska on a secret mission. Sarah Palin was beset by such political and personal turmoil that some powerful supporters determined an intervention was needed to pull her governorship, and her national future, back from the brink.
The official, the association’s executive director, Nick Ayers, arrived with a memorandum containing firm counsel, according to several people who know its details: Make a long-term schedule and stick to it, have staff members set aside ample and inviolable family time to replenish your spirits, and build a coherent home-state agenda that creates jobs and ensures re-election.
Like so much of the advice sent Ms. Palin’s way by influential supporters, it appeared to be happily received and then largely discarded, barely slowing what was, in retrospect, an inexorable march toward the resignation she announced 10 days ago.
Ms. Palin had returned to her home state from the presidential campaign as one of the hopeful prospects in her struggling party, even if she had much to prove to her detractors. Standing before the Legislature in January, she vowed to retake her office with “optimism and collaboration and hard work to get the job done.”
But interviews in Alaska and in Washington show that a seemingly relentless string of professional and personal troubles quickly put that goal out of reach.
Almost as soon as she returned home, the once-popular governor was isolated from an increasingly critical Legislature. Lawmakers who had supported her signature effort to develop a natural gas pipeline turned into uncooperative critics.
Ethics complaints mounted, and legal bills followed. At home Ms. Palin was dealing with a teenage daughter who had given birth to a son and broken up with the infant’s father, a baby of her own with special needs and a national news media that was eager to cover it all.
Friends worried that she appeared anxious and underweight. Her hair had thinned to the point where she needed emergency help from her hairdresser and close friend, Jessica Steele.
“Honestly, I think all of it just broke her heart,” Ms. Steele said in an interview at her beauty parlor in Wasilla, the Beehive.
Yet to the dismay of some advisers, Ms. Palin dived into the fray, seeming to relish the tabloid-ready fights that consumed her as the work of the state at times went undone.
Her public feud with David Letterman over a tasteless sexual joke he made about one of her daughters spun into a broader fight at home with a fellow Republican over state efforts to combat sexual abuse.
She had a political aide issue a news release condemning Levi Johnston, the teenage father of her daughter Bristol’s newborn, for his assertion that Ms. Palin had known the unwed high-schoolers were having sex all along.
It was the sort of intermingling between her personal and public agendas that had drawn ethics complaints against her even before Senator John McCain tapped her as his running mate in August.
But now, Ms. Palin had fewer defenders to lend support. Her husband, Todd, her most trusted adviser, was spending less time at her side both because they needed money from his oil industry job, friends say, and because questions had been raised about whether he had been too involved at the Capitol.
Her growing list of detractors quickly signaled that they were not impressed with her celebrity status.
“We had business to do,” said State Representative Nancy Dahlstrom, a Republican who had worked on Ms. Palin’s 2006 race for governor. “It’s not all about adoration.”
Late last week, as her sport utility vehicle made its way through the town of McGrath, Ms. Palin said in an interview that the seeds of her resignation had been planted the morning Mr. McCain named her as his vice-presidential choice.
“It began when we started really looking at the conditions that had so drastically changed on Aug. 29,” she said. “The hordes of opposition researchers came up here digging for dirt for political reasons, making crap up.”
Troubles Await Back Home
When Ms. Palin made it back to Alaska in November, the state that had once given her an 83 percent approval rating was no longer so enchanted.
Democrats who had been crucial to her governing coalition now saw her as a foe. Republican leaders who had previously lost fights with her smelled weakness. An abortion bill she supported requiring parental consent stalled, the Legislature rejected her choice for attorney general and lawmakers became skeptical of the natural gas pipeline effort.
“It’s like, ‘Ooh,’ ” Ms. Palin said in the interview, “ ‘not so good anymore, because it’s got Sarah’s name on it.’ ”
Martin Buser, a champion dog musher who is close to the Palins, said: “When she came back it was pretty clear it was not a trip with any light at the end of the tunnel. It was a spelunking trip that had no light and no end.”
She was met at the Capitol by a growing pile of ethics complaints filed by opponents that, under Alaska state law, had to be investigated.
During the campaign, an investigation by the Republican-dominated Legislature found that Ms. Palin had abused her office by leaning on subordinates to get her former brother-in-law fired from his job as a state trooper. She was forced to pay back taxes after it was disclosed that she had billed the state for thousands of dollars in per diem expenses meant to cover travel costs while staying in Wasilla. Still, of the 19 ethics complaints filed against her, most have been dismissed.
“We spend most of our day, my staff, a lot of the members of the Department of Law and myself, dealing with things that have nothing to do with policy or governance,” Ms. Palin said in the interview. “It has to do with setting the record straight in this game that’s being played right now.”
By all accounts, Ms. Palin became consumed with the complaints, no matter how small-bore — which many were — or where they came from.
When a local Democratic blogger accused her of becoming a “walking billboard” by wearing a jacket emblazoned with the logo of Arctic Cat, her husband’s team sponsor at the Iron Dog snowmobile race, she issued a news release titled “Governor Comments on Latest Bogus Ethics Complaint.”
“Yes, I wore Arctic Cat snow gear at an outdoor event, because it was cold outside,” her statement read. A follow-up release was triumphantly titled “Ethics Complaint on Governor’s Apparel Dismissed.”
Feuds begat feuds. Ms. Palin alleged in June that Mr. Letterman’s joke that one of her daughters had been “knocked up” by the Yankees star Alex Rodriguez during a recent trip to New York encouraged “sexual exploitation” of younger women.
Her comments then prompted a Republican lawmaker, State Representative Mike Hawker, to accuse Ms. Palin of underfinancing sexual abuse programs. Ms. Palin, in turn, directed public safety officials to give her fodder for a retort, requesting that they put out a statement saying her policies would reduce sexual assaults on minors.
Even Ms. Palin’s supporters came to believe that she was losing focus amid all the fighting.
“It was very relentless,” said State Representative John Coghill, a Republican. “My only criticism of her was she probably paid too much attention to it.”
In mid-spring, as the country grew alarmed over the swine flu, Ms. Palin skipped a briefing for administration officials on the outbreak by her chief medical officer, Dr. Jay C. Butler. A spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, noted that the teleconference took place about a month before the first case of the flu was reported in Alaska and that at the time the governor was meeting with top staff on the issue of federal stimulus funds. Since then, the state has had 122 confirmed cases of the H1N1 flu.
Dr. Butler said he resigned his post in June in part because the administration asked one of his highly regarded division heads, the state public health director, Beverly Wooley, to resign. “I felt that it was not a good time to be downsizing,” said Dr. Butler, who is now working on a swine flu vaccination at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Butler said the governor’s office apparently deemed Ms. Wooley insufficiently supportive of the parental consent bill backed by Ms. Palin.
Ms. Leighow would only say, inexplicably, that Ms. Wooley had been terminated by the health department, not the governor.
Amid all the turmoil, Ms. Palin’s enthusiasm for the job itself seemed to be waning, her office appointment books from January 2007 through this May indicate. Since her return from the national campaign her days have typically started later and ended earlier, and the number of meetings with local legislators and mayors has declined. The calendars were provided to The New York Times by Andree McLeod, who obtained them through a public records request and has filed ethics complaints against Ms. Palin.
Things on the home front were equally strained. Paparazzi regularly stalked the family, once ambushing Bristol Palin when she arrived with her newborn and her father at the Beehive beauty salon. Mr. Palin was forced to wait for her in the car with Bristol’s baby, Tripp, whose image was fetching a particularly high tabloid bounty.
If Bristol Palin was avoiding the limelight, her estranged boyfriend was seeking it. Mr. Johnston appeared bare-chested in GQ magazine holding Tripp. He told the talk show host Tyra Banks that he was certain Ms. Palin knew his relationship with her teenage daughter had been sexual.
Ms. Palin’s top political aide cranked out another news release: “We’re disappointed that Levi and his family, in a quest for fame, attention and fortune, are engaging in flat-out lies, gross exaggeration and even distortion of their relationship.”
Appeal Outside Alaska
Despite Ms. Palin’s travails in Alaska, she continued to have national cachet.
Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey’s producer called with interview requests. She fielded lucrative book deals, ultimately accepting one estimated to be in the millions of dollars. A veteran television producer proposed a “West Wing” meets “Northern Exposure” reality show about her. Out-of-state political trips were flashbacks to the presidential campaign. Crowds chanted, “Run, Sarah, Run!”
In January, Fred V. Malek, a longtime Republican kingmaker, held a dinner to introduce Ms. Palin to some of the party’s biggest names, prompted partly by what he saw as shabby treatment by the McCain campaign. Mr. Malek said she charmed former Vice President Dick Cheney at the dinner and bonded with Mr. Cheney’s daughter Liz over both raising five children.
The night was a highpoint. But already, Ms. Palin was having trouble reconciling the gravitational pull of her national support with the stresses of Alaska.
John Coale, a Washington trial lawyer and a Democrat who befriended the governor, said that during a political trip to Atlanta in December she expressed concern about her personal finances and complained that whenever she left Alaska “there was tremendous criticism up there.”
To Mr. Coale, the Palins seemed unprepared for the national stage. “I don’t think they got it, that they were in the arena,” he added. Mr. Coale helped Ms. Palin set up a legal defense fund and a political action committee to pay for her political activities. But both caused additional problems.
While the defense fund has raised more than $250,000, according to its trustee, the money cannot be spent pending resolution of an ethics complaint that contends that the contributions could amount to improper gifts.
The political action committee, named SarahPAC, was intended to help Ms. Palin steer clear of state ethics laws prohibiting the mixing of official duties and political activities. But according to people who dealt with it, a disconnect emerged between Ms. Palin’s political and official operations, resulting in embarrassing blunders.
After the Conservative Political Action Conference, a meeting of the Republican Party’s evangelical base, announced that the governor would have a coveted speaking role at its annual gathering in February, she canceled, citing scheduling conflicts. Then, organizers of one of the most important Republican Congressional fund-raisers of the year said they had been assured by a political aide to Ms. Palin that she would be their headliner, only to have her Anchorage office announce that she knew nothing about it.
Allies like Mr. Malek chalked up the confusion to Ms. Palin’s reliance on one aide to juggle the PAC’s demands. Mr. Malek said he urged Mr. Ayers, the governors’ association official, to write his memorandum and head to Alaska to get Ms. Palin’s operation in order.
Mr. Malek said he told Ms. Palin that “you have got to set up a mechanism so you can return calls.”
“You are getting a bad rap,” he recalled saying. “Important people are trying to talk to you. And she said, ‘What number are they calling?’ She did not know what had been happening.”
Tugs, Pulls and Pressures
Hope for the intervention’s success soon faded. Despite advice to stick close to home and focus on an Alaska agenda, the governor accepted an invitation to attend an anti-abortion dinner in Indiana in April, even though the state budget was hanging in the balance in the Legislature.
When Tom Wright, chief of staff for the speaker of the Alaska House, suggested that the governor would catch heat for leaving, Ms. Palin stormed into his office and, according to a person familiar with the conversation, “proceeded to ream him out.”
In early June, when Ms. Palin visited Mr. Malek in Washington, “My sense was she was very unhappy with the multiple tugs, pulls and pressures in her life, that her family life was not even close to what she regarded as acceptable,” he said, adding, “she just had a dissatisfaction with the way the job had developed.”
When she announced on July 3 that she was leaving the job, the national political establishment speculated that it was part of a scheme to position herself for a White House run.
Ms. Palin scoffed at the notion. “There’s no ulterior motive,” she said in the interview. She said the lieutenant governor who will succeed her on July 26, Sean R. Parnell, will pursue “the same agenda as mine — minus the distractions.”
In her hometown area at least, people take her at her word, but they doubt she is out of the game for good.
“She’s very young and she has a long time to be a potential candidate and to mature and develop a thicker skin,” said Janet Kincaid, a supporter in Palmer. “In politics, you’ve got to just let it roll or it will eat you alive.”
At the governor’s Anchorage office, staff members are struggling to roll with Ms. Palin’s surprise announcement. Last week, a clock on the wall continued its countdown. Under a “Time to Make a Difference” placard, the clock ticks away the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the scheduled end to Ms. Palin’s term. As of Friday, it had 513 days left.
“I don’t know how to reset the darn thing,” David Murrow, a spokesman for the governor, said earlier in the week.
Jim Rutenberg and Serge F. Kovaleski
The New York Times