In a cavernous convention hall on Sassafras Pier in Erie, Pennsylvania, five days before the election, Tom Ridge introduces Sarah Palin to 7,500 of her adoring fans, many of them holding hand-painted signs—MADAME MAVERICK, THE PUCK STOPS HERE. Palin thanks Ridge, calling him “the most popular governor, probably, ever,” and then proceeds immediately to insert her foot into her mouth. “I am thrilled to be here in the home state of the world champion Philadelphia Phillies,” she exclaims, apparently unaware that the good people of Erie, in the western part of the state, root either for the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Cleveland Indians. The crowd groans. Ridge grimaces. Palin smiles brightly and plows ahead.
Watching Palin and Ridge occupy the same stage, it’s impossible not to think of Robert Frost—you know, the road not taken. Here you have Ridge, the serious, experienced, impeccably credentialed former Pennsylvania governor and secretary of Homeland Security, a longtime friend of John McCain’s who occupied a place on his vice-presidential short list. Ridge’s pro-choice stance was politically problematic on the right, to be sure. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that McCain’s advisers would be calling Ridge a “diva” or a “whack job.” Or that Lawrence Eagleburger, one of the five former secretaries of State endorsing McCain, would have replied “Of course not” if he were asked if he was comfortable with Ridge’s being commander-in-chief, as he did regarding the Alaska governor last week. Or that 59 percent of voters would have felt that Ridge wasn’t up to the job of vice-president, as the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll found they do about Palin.
Counterfactual speculation of this sort will be moot, of course, should McCain somehow pull off a stunning upset on November 4. But if he doesn’t, the coulda-shoulda-wouldas will be withering and ceaseless, with Palin’s role in the defeat the subject of a furious interpretive battle between her detractors and defenders.
The contours of that battle and its outcome will be of more than academic interest. They will be central to the coming struggle for the soul of the Republican Party and to Palin’s future. Here in deep-blue Gotham, many people assume that her destiny is sealed: a one-way ticket back to Wasilla. But the truth is that Palin is likely to be a significant player on the national stage for years to come. As a galvanizing, maybe polarizing, figure in the conservative movement. As a folk hero on the talk-radio–Fox News right. And possibly, possibly, as the GOP front-runner in 2012.
That Palin in the final days of the campaign was already looking toward the next election cycle was glaringly evident—not least in some quarters inside McCain-land, where it caused no small degree of consternation. Her public (via Bill Kristol) challenging of McCain for not bringing up Barack Obama’s association with Jeremiah Wright, her objection to the campaign’s withdrawal from Michigan, her insistence on giving policy speeches during the home stretch, her loud and off-message effort to defend herself regarding her $150,000 wardrobe splurge: All of it seemed focused more on playing to the base or repairing her reputation than on helping McCain to win.
For a candidate whose public image has taken the battering that Palin’s has in the past two months, focusing on the post-election horizon seems both natural and drenched in chutzpah. But Palin surely knows that many prominent figures in the conservative movement—from Morton Blackwell to Brent Bozell—see in her the potential to emerge in time as a next-generation, XX-chromosome Ronald Reagan. Indeed, on November 5, an assemblage of the movement’s leaders will take place at a private weekend home in rural Virginia to begin discussing a way forward for the GOP in the age of Obama (if he wins, that is), with Palin’s role high on the agenda.
The case for Palin as a conservative standard-bearer isn’t hard to discern. She has electrified the Republican grassroots as no candidate has in years. In their size and enthusiasm, the crowds that come to see her on the stump rival or even exceed those that greeted Obama a few years ago, when he first burst on the scene. Her charisma and performance skills, so dazzling when she made her debut in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the Republican convention, were vividly on display when I saw her in Erie. Again and again, she whipped the throng into a frenzy with her barbed attacks on Obama. Her command of right-wing dog-whistle rhetoric is total. Speaking of her devotion to helping special-needs children, she seamlessly inserted a coded pro-life appeal: “John [McCain] and I have a vision of America where every innocent life counts.”