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With 2012 Coming Up and Arizona Receding, Sarah Palin Remains the Dominant Conservative

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Sarah Palin continues to mystify the pundits and magnetize the right wing. People have been trying to count her out since John McCain named her his running mate in 2008, but she remains the dominant American conservative. With polls showing that if she fails to win the Republican nomination then many of her supporters will stay home, it is clear at this time that all GOP nomination roads run through Wasilla. And they will continue to do so: Palin has the uncanny ability to insert herself directly into contemporary events and thus to be the center of attention. The 2012 election season has kicked off unofficially, so the question is whether this tactic, this Zelig-like quality of being the omnipresent (unelected) figure, will harm her chances to be our first female major-party nominee or not"not to mention what it means to the national dialogue.

Palin: Conservatives' Kind of Candidate

There is no reason to retread all the Sarah Palin ink here, but a brief overview of how she fits into the now-developing 2012 field would be helpful, before taking a look at her tactics. If nothing else, Palin is outsize. That matters a lot nowadays, notably on the Right (see Limbaugh, Beck, Bachmann"). In an age of 24-7 news coverage, being quotable, personable, and telegenic, goes a long way. I recall working on issues campaigns that dealt with Rick Santorum. You always knew he might come out with some line that would change the game, for better or worse. In the derby that is primary season, notably with the Tea Party ascendant, the more game-changers you utter the better.

Dealing with Santorums, it got to the point where colleagues would go on autopilot whenever we won a legislative victory; their press releases were basically guaranteed to say, "A day late and a dollar short.' There was no mood for compromise. And that is definitely the order of the day among grassroots primary-election enthusiasts on the GOP side. With Palin, they can be sure they will hear that it's well more than "a day' or "a dollar' --every time. For her Obama simply cannot do right. The people who are going to run around for months knocking every door in Iowa, repeatedly, will be inspired by that. Latter-day Bob Doles are unlikely to reach those willing to endure 0-degree weather to stand and hold signs in New Hampshire, or those with the hard-knuckle grit often needed to win in South Carolina. The primary battle is not about winning over op-ed columnists or 50%+1 of the people.

Many Palin backers will support her even if they think she could be another Goldwater and get blown out in November. Romney looks to a lot of people, myself included, like a respectable way to give Obama four more years. Palin may look 90% like a 1964 redo, but the 10% that looks like 1980 could easily be enough for a party dying for another Reagan and not seeing other options on their bench. Remember that Republicans supported Reagan even after he ran against both Nixon and Ford, each of whom had been anointed standard-bearer. Faced with fellow frontrunners Mitt "Romneycare' Romney and the easygoing Mike Huckabee, Palin is someone who cannot be counted out at all until the votes have been cast.

Palin's Tactics

To comprehend Palin's importance we need only look at the recent Arizona shooting. Days after America's most emotional tragedy since 9-11, the news focused on the health of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the primary target, and on President Obama's upcoming Tucson speech. Then Palin released her "presidential'-looking video-statement "and immediately overwhelmed the air waves. (Her follow-ups likewise had a major impact.)

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Arizona Shooting Scene by SearchNet Media

Criticizing calls to "tone down the rhetoric,' she instead inserted a line that wrenched it up. "Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn." These words reverberated: "blood libel' is a historically-weighted term. It refers to old claims that Jews killed Christian children, to use their blood in rituals. Basically, this was an infamous excuse for anti-Semites to slaughter Jews. It is also an outmoded term. Nobody from my Jewish family (which escaped anti-Semitic Russia long ago), or others I know, ever had reason to dredge it up. Enter Palin, who certainly can turn a phrase "into a weapon, loaded for our cacophonous times.

Palin acutely understands media, and conservative voters. That is another reason she may well net the Republican nomination. The question is whether she can turn her successes into a Reagan-like run, or whether she will come off more like Goldwater --or fellow 2012 aspirant Newt Gingrich. At this point she appears to consistently lose sight of the lesson of her hero Reagan, who himself had emerged as a national-level "former governor from the Western frontier.'

Reagan could give highly non-mainstream stances a mainstream feel. Palin, on the other hand, breathes extremism into the most mainstream matters. Beyond seeming like a grandfatherly optimist, Reagan's political potency was seen in his selling of tough rhetoric, whether about welfare recipients or a Soviet "evil empire.' His words and demeanor clearly communicated well beyond his political base. Perhaps Palin instead is hoping she can muscle through the primary and then find a way to turn out all those "peasants with pitchforks' that Bush and Rove rallied so as to beat Kerry.

Palin lives and dies on being the resolute leader Bush claimed to be. That is a risky strategy. Her words are now indelibly linked to Arizona and "blood.' She is a symbol for today's politics. Ironically, in a way her situation recalls that of America's other viable female candidacy: Clinton "08 . Many voters saw Hillary Clinton as a continuation of the era of Baby-Boom presidential leadership "and they went on to choose a post-Sixties candidate (one who was voted in in November over a pre- Boomer one).

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Frankly, it is remarkable that an office-less citizen has been capable of dominating the news narrative, even at the most poignant of times. When a gunned-down nine year-old girl in Arizona can temporarily appear to be just another bump on our high-octane political highway, you know that the anger has become extremely intense. How it will play out remains to be seen. But Palin will certainly not go quietly into some "electable Republican' good night; the whispers about electability will no doubt be challenged once the candidates start debating in earnest. One can only imagine the boys sharing a stage with Palin. It certainly will be entertaining --and that is bound to drive up attention to the primary process. And Palin is always the center of attention.

Necessary Reflection This Time? 

Yet, box-score politics aside, we as responsible citizens must keep in mind how Palin's activity, notably her Arizona words, serves to generate round after round of increased accusations and additional anger. This spirit continues to trump necessary reflection. We hear no serious discussion of gun-safety, though we know that the semi-automatic weapon was purchased legally by an unstable man (who had attracted police attention previously). Sandbox politics still sells better than reflection on complex issues.

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Craig Kaufman has worked on political and educational campaigns in a number of states, including running a US Congress campaign and founding a statewide Pennsylvania issues-legislation organization. His work has been featured with CNN, FOX, (more...)

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