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Will she run?

interior-paliowaThis article appeared in the Sunday Herald on September 19, 2010.

The Iowa Republican party’s annual Reagan Day Dinner is an established launching pad for presidential campaigns, so when Sarah Palin was announced as the headline speaker, it prompted much speculation that she would use the platform to declare her candidacy, or at least give some indication that she will be a serious contender in 2012.

In the event, she observed the old show business maxim to always leave them wanting more, with a speech that hinted at grand ambitions without committing to a return to politics. When asked directly whether she would run, on Fox News, she gave a three “if” answer, with plenty of room for manoeuvre.

“If the American people were to be ready for someone who is willing to shake it up, and willing to get back to time-tested truths, and help lead our country towards a more prosperous and safe future and if they happen to think I was the one, if it were best for my family and for our country, of course I would give it a shot,” she said.

As the first state to hold a presidential primary, Iowa is an essential stop for prospective candidates. Although the race doesn’t officially begin until after November’s midterm elections, Palin’s perceived rivals Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee have visited the state several times.

Party chairman Matt Strawn told the Des Moines Register that “Iowa Republicans are going to look favourably on anybody that has come to this state this year to help us win in 2010.” Appearing at the dinner keeps Palin’s options open. More importantly, it prolongs the guessing game. The moment she admits that she has no desire to be president, Palin will become just another celebrity pundit, albeit an extremely influential one.

Since resigning as Governor of Alaska, in July 2009, Palin has become the most successful brand in Republican politics. In terms of name recognition and ability to draw a crowd, she trounces every other potential nominee. No-one else can dominate the news cycle with a single tweet or Facebook update, as she did with her notorious claim that health care reform would introduce “death panels” to decide which patients receive lifesaving treatment.

Her political action committee, SarahPAC, has shown unrivalled fundraising ability, generally on behalf of hardline conservative candidates running as insurgents under the “Tea Party” banner. The vast sums it has spent building a political network imply that Palin is laying the foundations for a presidential run.

Her Iowa speech offered few clues, but it did demonstrate the potency of her appeal to the Republican base. Palin’s message – fiscal conservatism, faith, family and country – is standard issue, but she presented it, as always, in language calculated to stoke the grievances of the American heartland against federal interference, the “lamestream media” and an out of touch political establishment.

“They think that America’s future should be dictated from the top down, not the bottom up,” she said. “I’m confident and hopeful because this is our movement, this is our moment.”

Palin’s middle class, middle American background remains her biggest asset. In her memoir, Going Rogue, auctioned to Harper Collins for $7 million, she mentions that she buys “generic peanut butter” and clips coupons to save money. When her supporters are interviewed at rallies, they often say that Palin is “real” or understands their concerns in a way that other politicians cannot.

The field of 2012 contenders is weak: Huckabee says he won’t run, Gingrich has too much baggage, having married three times and Romney has never inspired much enthusiasm among social conservatives. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is a caricature of white, Southern privilege, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is an awkward communicator, Pawlenty lacks charisma and is too moderate for the grassroots.

There is scope for a long shot candidacy, such as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Senator John Thune or even first term New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, but if Palin enters the race, she would be among the favourites.

Her ruthless ambition and political instincts are not in doubt, but there are several reasons to suspect that Palin will remain on the sidelines. Polls show that she is the most polarising politician in America. In a recent CBS survey, only 21% of respondents had a favourable opinion of her, including just 50% of Republicans – hardly a sound basis for a national campaign.

Her endorsement helped Rand Paul, Christine O’Donnell, Nikki Haley and Kelly Ayotte win their primaries against the Republican hierarchy’s favoured candidates, but she lost as many contests as she won. In Georgia, Palin told an adoring crowd that Karen Handel would “fight like a mama grizzly” for their rights, only to see her defeated the next day.

It is by no means certain that Palin still wants to be president. As Going Rogue makes clear, she detested the scrutiny that came with being John McCain’s running mate, objected to the condescension that was heaped on her and had no appetite for learning facts to boost her policy credentials.

One of the reasons Palin quit as Governor was that she was dissatisfied with earning $125,000 a year. She now commands almost as much for a single speech. In her first year after leaving office, she made an estimated $13 million.

The cable channel TLC is paying $1 million per episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska, which begins in November. Palin’s second book, America By Heart, will be published the same month. Fox News is building a television studio at the family home and a mansion, with a hangar for Todd Palin’s seaplane, is under construction next door.

On September 11, Palin and Fox News star Glenn Beck co-headlined an event in Anchorage, Alaska. She made a reference to “some big 2012 announcement” but, of course, it was only a tease. The question has to be why, when she earns so much money and wields so much influence, she would volunteer for the desperate grind of a presidential bid.

Democrats are already running against Palin, regardless. Barack Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe recently told an audience in Iowa that Beck and Palin are “the real Republican party” and that Democratic candidates should define themselves against “their intolerance and their backwards thinking” in the coming midterm elections.