Politics

Analysis: Will Palin's unconventional style work?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Sarah Palin appears in an undated photo posted on her Facebook page on September 4, 2009.

Sarah Palin appears in an undated photo posted on her Facebook page on September 4, 2009. (facebook.com/sarahpalin)

She says what she wants, does what she wants and makes no apologies. And love her or hate her, you can't really argue with this: Politics as usual has never been Sarah Palin's style.

"I wasn't wired to play that game," the former Alaska governor says in "Going Rogue," the memoir whose title reflects her affinity for going her own way.

As she weighs whether to seek the presidency, it's hard not to wonder: Do the old tenets of White House campaigns apply to someone who has broken virtually every rule in modern-day American politicking? Can she bypass conventional politics and succeed? Will she even try?

Her would-be opponents are pondering these questions -- and what the answers mean for their own possible candidacies -- as they await word of whether the unpredictable Palin will be candidate or kingmaker. It's a decision that will upend the already chaotic GOP field of potential contenders: Palin, with a loyal following among conservatives and tea party activists, will affect the race whether she runs or not.

The woman whom one potential GOP challenger, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, calls "a force of nature" repeatedly has ripped up and rewritten the playbook of traditional politics. It's what her legions of grass-roots backers adore about her. And it's what may either sink or make her candidacy should she run.

"She's completely unconventional, and that confounds a lot of the people who make their living as commentators and consultants," says Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman. "It may or may not work, but it's way too early to tell."

Palin certainly doesn't look the part of a traditional candidate. She's a woman -- an attractive one -- in a male-dominated industry. With her "You betchas," she doesn't sound like most politicians. She's from Alaska, a state hardly known for producing presidents. She's no longer an elected official; she quit 2 1/2 years into a four-year term.

While most politicians try to play nice with journalists, Palin openly disparages "the lamestream media" and has circumvented it when possible, often quite successfully. (Her advisers did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.) She's embraced a new medium of online communication that allows her to communicate with her followers directly.

"In the way JFK was the first made-for-television president, she may be the first made-for-Facebook president," Gillespie says.

Palin has also carved out other avenues to promote herself. She's a best-selling author, a reality-show star, a big draw on the paid speaking circuit, a Fox News commentator. No other American politician can lay claim to such a broad multimedia platform.

When she deploys that megaphone, she doesn't hold her tongue. She flirted with vulgarity last month when she called President Barack Obama's State of the Union address -- titled "Winning the Future" -- a "WTF" speech.

When she finds herself enmeshed in controversy, she doesn't back down or try to explain away an inartful comment or eyebrow-raising appearance. Instead, she leans into the criticism.

She took that path last month after the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., turned the spotlight on the imagery and metaphors Palin used during last fall's midterm campaign.

Within hours, critics assailed Palin for her political action committee map that had crosshairs over Democrats that voters should turn out, Giffords included. They also took her to task for her "Don't retreat, reload!" election rallying cry to conservatives.

First, Palin issued a brief statement of condolence. Then she wrote an e-mail to conservative talk show host Glenn Beck that accused "politicos" of trying to capitalize on the shootings by falsely suggesting she was inciting terror and violence. Days later, she defended her actions in a Facebook video, accusing media and critics of "blood libel" and declaring, "They can't make us sit down and shut up."

With the shootings still fresh, she also went ahead with appearances at two national gatherings for hunters in Nevada.

The general public may be turned off. A series of polls last month showed that more than half the country had an unfavorable view of Palin, a negative tilt that's been evident since just after the 2008 elections.

But Palin's fans -- a narrow slice of the electorate -- seem to like her style.

Listen to Sandy Parten of Honey Grove, Texas, a conservative who likens Palin to the title character that James Stewart played in the movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Says Parten: "I like her because she's not part of the establishment. She's more a woman of the people than a woman of the elite."

To her, Palin is refreshing -- and authentic. "I'm tired of everybody trying to please everybody all the time," says Parten, 66. "She doesn't."

And hear from Donald Dixon, 74, a Republican from Little Falls, N.Y., who likes seeing Palin do the things he'd do, like hunting and fishing. "It's like she doesn't have an ax to grind politically," he says. "She isn't out there to please any entity. She's one of us."

Comments like these give credence to arguments by Palin's allies that her chips-fall-where-they-may attitude could attract a GOP primary electorate that, during last year's elections, showed a disdain for Washington and the Republican Party machine.

Even so, her allies recognize they must encourage their unconventional Republican to embrace parts of a traditional campaign because there are realities to running for president, like turning out voters.

In a conventional move that fueled speculation she was gearing up for a run, Palin recently hired political strategist Michael Glassner, who managed vice presidential operations for John McCain in 2008, as chief of staff of her political action committee. It brought in roughly $3.5 million last year, ahead of most other would-be candidates' committees. The exception was Mitt Romney's, which raised about $2 million more.

Still, when it comes to the brass tacks of campaigning, Palin hasn't aggressively taken the typical steps of a would-be candidate, suggesting either that she won't run or that she believes the rules don't apply to her.

"They may not," says Evan Cornog, author of "The Power and the Story: How the Crafted Presidential Narrative Has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush."

But, Cornog adds, there's a long list of candidates who tried to diverge from the traditional path and failed, including Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani in 2008. "They didn't exactly meet with tremendous success."

A year before the primaries, Palin:

--Skips the year's first major gathering of GOP presidential hopefuls, last week's Conservative Political Action Conference.

--Eschews a robust national political operation for a more ad hoc adviser network in which few hold job titles and everyone's duties seem to overlap. There's little evidence that she's building on-the-ground campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire and other important states even as her would-be opponents ramp up.

--Avoids publicly kowtowing to activists who demand potential candidates appear at county fairs and pancake breakfasts in those or other early voting states. Local activists report only sporadic contact with Palin or her team.

--Remains vague about any timeline, while would-be opponents set deadlines and inch toward declaring intentions. And, unlike others, she's mostly eschewed major speeches to flesh out her positions, instead relying heavily on online musings.

All that gives Republican observers pause.

"Palin may like the image that she has now of being the conservative diva," says Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan's White House chief of staff. "But I'm not sure that she wants to test it in the battles of a campaign."

After all, that's the very game she insists she's not wired to play.

(Copyright ©2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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