Despite a torrent of criticism from the media, Democrats and even some in her own party, Sarah Palin remains the hottest brand name in politics.
Her recent resignation was perplexing. It’s raised doubts about her viability as a potential presidential candidate. Still, she remains extremely popular with the GOP grass roots, and most Republican Party leaders would jump at the chance to have her headline one of their events.
That’s the picture that emerges from interviews with dozens of GOP state and local leaders from across the country.
As part of an effort to gauge Palin’s popularity with the rank and file beyond the Beltway, where the GOP establishment is lukewarm toward the charismatic former governor, POLITICO surveyed nearly 50 prominent Republican Party officials and politicians, representing every region of the country and ranging from statewide-elected officeholders to state legislators to state and county party chairs.
Some refused to talk about her at all. Others, mostly her critics, would do so only off the record. But taken as a whole, the body of interviews revealed that despite Palin’s high negative ratings in recent national polls, Republicans at the grass-roots level and their leaders still hold a very favorable impression of the former Alaska governor.
Westerners have a particular affinity for Palin, with many noting that she embodied the values of freedom and self-reliance.
Scott Sales, the minority leader of the Montana House, referred to her “curb appeal” among the party’s rank and file.
In Colorado, a state where Palin campaigned hard last year on behalf of the Republican ticket but which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) eventually lost to Barack Obama, Arapahoe County Republican Party Chairman David Kerber said that Palin was a good fit with Western sensibilities.
“She comes across as someone who’s going to say what she says and if you don’t like it, that’s just too bad,” Kerber said. “She’s not going to lie, she’s not going to sugarcoat it — she’s just going to let it rip. I think that’s what Westerners want.”
“People saw her as one of them — someone who could relate to an everyday person. She’s not one of the political class,” said Heidi Gansert, the Nevada House minority leader. “I also believe that women appreciated her message and what she’d accomplished in her political career and family life. A woman who has a young family, who is able to become the governor of Alaska — a lot of people, women who worked the everyday jobs with their families — they know that she’s experiencing the same things they are.”
Evangelical Christians and rural and small-town Republicans also hold Palin in high esteem.
“The ones who are most supportive of her are what I would term the very conservative, libertarian-leaning voters of southern Nevada — of which there is a very large contingent,” said Bernie Zadrowski, the chairman of Las Vegas’s Clark County Republican Party. “You might also classify them as the constitutional wing of the party.”
Charles M. Webster, the state GOP chairman in Maine, said Republicans there are very enthusiastic about Palin largely because they can see themselves in her.
“I see her as being somebody who the average, what I call ‘working class guy,’ relates to,” Webster said. “Somebody who’s plain-spoken, somebody who hunts and fishes. And this is Maine — we’re in the country up here.”
In Florida, Pasco County Republican Party Chairman Randy Maggard agreed that Palin’s down-to-earth style also connected with many Gulf Coast Republicans.
“The people I talk to that like her say she relates to them because they don’t really look at her as a politician in Washington,” Maggard said. “They look at her as a mom who was in business who happened to get into politics. They feel like they can relate to her.”
At the same time, many GOP leaders conceded that her prospects as a presidential contender took a significant hit when she abruptly resigned as governor in July, a decision that was viewed as perplexing and part of a worrisome pattern of uneven behavior.
Former New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen referred to it as the “Palin Paradox.”
“If you were a candidate, you’d still want her to be campaigning with you because she would attract the crowds,” Cullen said, before posing the question that numerous other Republicans asked: “How can you quit without finishing your first term and then ask us to entrust the presidency to you?”
A USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted after she announced her plans in early July found that 70 percent of voters did not change their opinion of her after she decided not to finish her first term. Seventeen percent said they viewed Palin less favorably and 9 percent said their opinion of her improved.
But many party insiders expressed concern about the timing and political wisdom of the decision, noting that it complicated whatever plans she might have for higher office.
Jim Roddey, the chairman of the Allegheny County Republican Committee in western Pennsylvania, said that Palin’s exit would leave her vulnerable to additional criticism that her résumé isn’t long enough to be president.
“I think she will be a national player at some level, but whether or not it’s as a nominee for the presidency, I don’t know,” Roddey said. “My gut tells me it’s not likely, but anything’s possible.”
In Montana, Max Hunsaker, the executive director of the state GOP, said that Palin’s resignation did little to convince him that after an inconsistent performance as a vice presidential candidate, she was now ready for prime time.
“Now she’s damaged goods and for the good of the party, we need to rethink. She’s not going to be our solution for a leader,” Hunsaker said. “She shouldn’t be our standard-bearer in four years. That’s pragmatic, and that’s being merciful toward her.”
Christine Toretti, a Republican national committeewoman from Indiana, Pa., had a similar reaction.
“I don’t see Sarah Palin as the leader of the Republican Party going forward from the conversations that I’m having with women in Pennsylvania,” said Toretti. “There are those who are absolutely crazy about her — they say she’s the Jennifer Aniston of the Republican Party. And then there are other people that say, ‘What’s this all about? She’s airing all of her family dirty laundry.’”
Others were not so quick to write Palin off. Claude Pope, the GOP chairman of Wake County, N.C., said that while some people he spoke with had an “initial knee-jerk reaction” to her resignation, eventually “they seemed to come around to the thought that maybe this is the right thing to do.”
Party leaders said that ultimately Palin’s political future hinges on how she uses her time away from public office. Debbie Cox-Roush, the GOP chairwoman in Florida’s Hillsborough County, put it this way: “2012 depends on what Sarah Palin does between now and 2012.”
Cox-Roush and other Republicans offered a range of advice for Palin, including traveling the country to help other Republican candidates get elected, broadening her supporter base to reach beyond social conservatives and raising money.
Arizona House Majority Leader John McComish said Palin should hit the books in an effort to dispel fears that she is unfit for the presidency. McComish called them the “Katie Couric issues,” a reference to Palin’s widely viewed and often-panned interview with the CBS News anchor last September.
The danger for Palin, said Morgan Griffith, the Republican House majority leader in Virginia, is that “she just hangs out, makes a few speeches but doesn’t have a real clear-cut agenda of what she’s trying to do.”
In assessing the prospective 2012 GOP presidential candidates, Griffith ranked former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as a cut above Palin — a frequently made assessment.
“It’s Romney, Huckabee and — a step behind — Palin,” said Griffith.
An Iowa state senator explained: “While people may still like her, I’m not sure that they think she has the skills necessary to pull us out of the political funk we find ourselves in. The edge might go to Romney, who has been more tried and tested.”
While Palin has sought to burnish her credentials on economic issues — earlier this summer, she penned an op-ed piece for The Washington Post in which she called President Obama’s cap-and-trade energy plan “an enormous threat to our economy”— Romney has the clear edge on fiscal policy issues with Republican leaders.
David Balmer, the Colorado House assistant minority leader, said he hears talk about Romney as “the type of leader that we would need in this type of recession.”
“Both his background and his proven ability to turn companies around is what we need in America right now,” Balmer added.
In North Carolina, Rob Bryan, the GOP chairman in Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County, said that while he admires Palin, the party would be better off pinning their hopes on Romney.
“I still think, with economics being such a key issue these days, I find [Romney’s] candidacy to be a much more viable one than hers,” Bryan said. “I understand that she’s popular with the base, but if you ask me, ‘Do I hope she’s our nominee in 2012?’ My answer would be no.”
Still, nearly everyone expressed awe at Palin’s knack for generating enthusiasm among the party faithful and, in particular, her remarkable ability to draw a big crowd.
“I was at a forum recently in northwest Ohio. We talked about Sarah Palin,” said Ohio State Auditor Mary Taylor. “Everybody’s interested and waiting to see what she is going to do next, and I did feel a sense of energy, support and enthusiasm for her.”
A New Hampshire state senator predicted: “If she showed up tomorrow in New Hampshire, they’d be lined up across the state.”
Since Palin’s talents are easily translated into fundraising, like many other party chairs, Palm Beach County, Fla.’s Sid Dinerstein said he’s ready to roll out the red carpet for her.
“She’s the most popular politician in America today,” Dinerstein said. “We would beg her to come to Palm Beach. There’s nobody who can raise money like Sarah.”
Another Palm Beach County Republican, state committeeman Pete Feaman, argued that Palin has been misunderstood and that, at least among Republican voters, her support is durable.
“Republicans love Sarah Palin whether she’s a presidential candidate, a governor or an ordinary citizen,” he said. “It’s interesting that inside-the-Beltway people have no clue how much she is really loved.”
Michael Falcone & Zachary Abrahamson