Sarah Palin as GOP nominee in 2012? Don't laugh it off

February 16, 2010|By Jules Witcover

After weeks of working the book-promotion circuit, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin seems to be getting down to the serious business of selling herself as a viable presidential nominee for the Republican Party in 2012.

Now that she has shed the confining requirement of running a state government, Citizen Sarah has hit the political talk circuit full blast, first with her speech to the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville and then with a long interview with Chris Wallace on the Fox network that is her new employer.

She told Mr. Wallace on the Fox Sunday talk show that "it would be absurd" not to consider a presidential candidacy if the cards fall right for her and her family and that she will not "close the door that perhaps could be open for me in the future."

Sarah Palin may come off as a bit ditzy, but stupid she is not. She can read as well as anyone else that the political tea leaves already reveal a wide public curiosity about her, whether politically favorable or unfavorable so far. She has gotten the nation's attention and plenty of offers to exploit it.

But attention cannot always be translated into votes. The latest Washington Post/ABC News telephone poll of about a thousand randomly selected voters indicates most agree with her dissatisfaction with Washington under President Barack Obama. But the same poll also suggests most don't see her right now as the ideal messenger.

Two-thirds of those surveyed said they are "dissatisfied" or "angry" with the federal government, the highest disaffection in a decade, though two-thirds also profess to know little of the tea party movement whose ranks Ms. Palin has joined, ostensibly as a foot soldier.

As for Citizen Sarah, the poll shows 55 percent of those questioned about her saw her in an unfavorable light, to only 37 percent favorable, and 7 in 10 rated her unqualified to be president. Even among conservative Republicans, only 45 percent said she was qualified, down from 66 percent. Not surprisingly, a mere 6 percent of Democrats surveyed could see her as White House-ready, and only 29 percent of independents.

All this could change. Her set speech in Nashville was well delivered and overwhelmingly well received. And in her interview with Mr. Wallace, she conveyed a sense of self-confidence sorely lacking in her fumbling, extemporaneous 2008 campaign interviews with Charlie Gibson of ABC News and Katie Couric of CBS News.

In the Wallace interview, she deftly played the populist card, saying she was no "elitist" like, she implied, Ivy Leaguer Obama, "some charismatic guy with a Teleprompter." Rather, she cast herself as just one of the average folks from Main Street who better understands what other Main Streeters are going through. And at the National Tea Party Convention, she titillated the conservative crowd by needling Mr. Obama, asking the audience: "How's that hopey, changey stuff working out for you?"

As an entertainer, Citizen Sarah has already made her mark, but now she needs to make an effective segue into the stature of political leadership. The same rap of being only an entertainer didn't stop Ronald Reagan in his quests for the California governorship and then the presidency, so we know it can happen.

But Mr. Reagan 30 years ago successfully rode a similar dissatisfaction with Washington by promising to "clean out the swamp" there. By the time he ran for president, he had demonstrated a firm enough grasp of the issues of the day to convince voters he could do a better job than the hapless Jimmy Carter.

One challenge for Ms. Palin is to shake off the public impression that she is still going to boot camp as a national candidate. Those crib notes on her palm captured by the television camera in Nashville served chiefly to remind voters that she has a lot of homework to do, while also subjecting her to ridicule she doesn't need right now.

But with the prospective 2012 Republican presidential field of other attractive and commanding figures so thin at this point, the old Henny Youngman answer to "How's your wife?" - "Compared to what?" - comes quickly to mind.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@com

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