When news surfaced yesterday that Sarah Palin would be venturing to Iowa to headline the GOP’s annual Reagan Day Dinner on September 17, she sparked a new round of media speculation about her 2012 presidential ambitions. Ever since Palin resigned from the Governor’s Mansion last summer, the will-she-or-won’t-she guessing game that occupies the minds of Republicans (and many optimistic Democrats) has turbocharged her appeal as a national figure.
But the trip to Iowa, like almost anything to do with Palin, can be read in a number of ways. On the one hand, it might be an earnest attempt to begin to build a campaign. But it’s also, certainly, an effective move for a media figure like Palin — Matt Drudge played it huge. For Palin, running for president is partly a kind of profit center. “It’s an industry to write about Sarah and put her on TV,” John Coale, the prominent Democratic lawyer and husband of Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren, told me. “We’re two years into this and people are still fascinated by her. But, if she doesn’t run, does she maintain this interest?”
In fact, in conversations in recent days with Republicans and advisers familiar with her thinking, there has been a mounting feeling that Palin probably won’t run for president — not that anyone would go so far as to predict what the Mama Grizzly-in-Chief is going to do with certainty. “They’re not ramping up, and they’re not adding staff. My guess is she’s not going to run,” said one Republican close to her, who, like others in Palin-world, insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations. “I don’t think she’s going to run for anything,” added another adviser. “My reasoning is as follows: She hated what was happening in public office. She was getting pilloried, she was going broke, she really didn’t like it — it’s why she left. She hated her life. She hated it. Now she has the world by the tail. She’s speaking to adoring crowds. Maybe only 20 percent of the people like her, but they adore her. I would be stunned if she does it. I would give it 90 percent probability she doesn’t run. … She’s smart enough to know the chances of getting elected is very, very slim. And she will get pilloried in the process. She likes her life up there, now she has the money she needs. She has the best of both worlds.”
Her advisers, both on her payroll and in her kitchen cabinet, cautioned that no options have been ruled out, and any decision on a presidential run would likely come late in the process, perhaps next fall, several months before the Iowa caucus.
And yet there is a strong case to be made that Palin faces large hurdles — some of her own choosing — in staging a 2012 run. For one, her political infrastructure remains a bare-bones operation. As other GOP contenders court professional advisers, Palin has so far rejected calls from some members of her inner circle who have pushed her to professionalize her operation and strike a less antagonistic approach to dealing with reporters. “Sarah Palin doesn’t like staff,” one source familiar with the inner workings of Palin-world told me. “She doesn’t need that. She’s proven to herself ‘I don’t need to do this right now.’”
Another problem: her Iowa polling. In August, Palin finished a disappointing fourth in a match-up of Republicans, with only 11 percent (Mike Huckabee won with 22 percent, followed by Mitt Romney with 18 percent and Newt Gingrich at 14 percent). She remains little known to the insular Iowa caucus machinery that rewards candidates who hustle for votes (hence the routine Iowa appearances by Romney, Santorum, and Pawlenty).
“The ability to excite voters — she’s got that. In my mind, there’s more to the equation than that,” says veteran GOP strategist Jim Dyke. “Based on the ‘08 campaign, she can excite people. But were they excited by her specifically, or in comparison to her running mate, were they just desperate for something? Who knows.”
And then there’s Palin’s drama-fueled personal life that undercuts her stark family-values message, a potential political liability to Christian conservative GOP primary voters.
Right now, Palin remains focused on building her media career. She has just wrapped up taping her TLC series, and on November 23, HarperCollins will publish her second book, America By Heart. According to sources familiar with the book, Palin most likely won’t be participating in a huge multi-city bus tour like the campaign-style promotional effort for Going Rogue. A spokesperson for HarperCollins said no final decisions on the book tour have been made yet.
Palin’s busy media schedule has forced her to cancel trips abroad to bulk up her foreign-policy weakness. This fall, Palin had planned to travel to London to meet Margaret Thatcher and also discussed a trip to Israel. But now both trips have been scrapped because she’s been too busy. One source explained that she may travel after the midterms, but no dates have been finalized.
With the fall midterm season in full swing, attention is already shifting toward what happens after November. Her flirtation with presidential politics is a big part of her appeal in the national media. The New York Times Magazine assigned veteran political writer Robert Draper to report a big Palin profile for this fall, and she remains a regular presence on cable news, as a paid contributor to Fox and a ratings magnet across the political spectrum on MSNBC. As long as her intentions remain an open question, Palin’s prominence on the national stage is assured.