Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is shaking up a Republican presidential field just starting to take shape, injecting her unconventional campaigning and celebrity into what had been a sleepy start to the party’s 2012 primaries.
It’s not clear what Palin, 47, is up to as she travels the East Coast on a deluxe tour bus emblazoned with a Liberty Bell and phrases from the U.S. Constitution and the Pledge of Allegiance -- whether she will choose to run for president or how she will seek to affect the race with her re-emergence on the national scene.
“I don’t know, I honestly don’t know” about seeking the presidency, Palin told reporters who caught up with her yesterday in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, according to the Associated Press.
What is evident, say party strategists and political observers, is that Palin, Senator John McCain’s 2008 vice presidential running mate, would be a force if she chose to join the fray and can also shape the contest even from the sidelines.
“If she entered the race, she automatically and immediately shoots to the front of the pack,” because of her fundraising prowess, support among conservatives and Tea Party activists, and media stardom, said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist and public relations executive.
Whatever Palin decides, she is signaling that she intends to influence the tone and the themes of the 2012 race, he said.
“This bus tour is going to put issues on the table that she and her constituents care about, and it’s going to have an impact on how the other campaigns tailor their stump speeches and the kind of retail politics they do,” Mueller said.
Palin has spent the last three days in something of a cat- and-mouse game with media eager to track her, yet starved for information about her plans. Her aides have refused to divulge her itinerary or schedule. She visited the Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg today and continued traveling through the politically competitive state of Pennsylvania, with a stop at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
She went yesterday to Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where the bombardment by the British in the War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key to write the “The Star Spangled Banner,” a poem that became the words to the U.S. national anthem.
Starting from the May 29 veterans’ Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally in Washington, Palin’s first stops included the National Archives, where she looked at the country’s founding documents, and Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate in nearby Virginia. She has blogged about the tour on the web site of her political action committee, the only source of information about the trip. Visitors there are prompted each time they access the page to donate to Palin before seeing what she’s up to.
Washington “is my favorite founding father because he was reluctant to serve, and yet he rose to the great challenges before him,” Palin wrote after her stop at Mount Vernon. “Can you tell I’m fired up?!”
If Palin jumped into the presidential race, she’d have to give up a $1 million-a-year salary from Fox News, where she is a commentator, and subject her family to scrutiny that she decried during the 2008 contest and in its aftermath.
Still, some of her recent moves, including hiring a chief of staff and buying a home in Arizona that would offer an easier base for campaigning around the country, have fueled speculation that she was laying the groundwork for a run.
The bus tour comes shortly after it was disclosed that Palin will be the subject of a feature-length documentary titled “The Undefeated” that will premiere next month in Iowa, a key state in the nominating process. The director, Stephen Bannon, said in statement last week that the film was “a call to action for a campaign like 1976: Reagan vs. the establishment. Let’s have a good old-fashioned brouhaha.”
Palin announced her attention-grabbing road trip late last week as the Memorial Day holiday weekend was about to begin and just as the Republican field was starting to gel.
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, real estate developer Donald Trump and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour have all announced in recent weeks that they wouldn’t enter the contest.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty formally entered the race May 23 with an announcement in Des Moines, joining former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Representative Ron Paul of Texas and businessman Herman Cain as declared candidates. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney made his first visit of the year to Iowa last week, and his campaign says he will announce his candidacy on June 2 in New Hampshire.
Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania congressman and Senator, plans to jump in at an event in his home state on June 6. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has said she will make her intentions known in early June, perhaps in her native Iowa.
A Gallup Poll released May 27 showed Palin in a statistical tie with Romney for first place in the prospective Republican race among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Palin drew 15 percent and Romney 17 percent, within the survey’s 4-percentage point margin of error. Gingrich trailed with 9 percent, and Pawlenty drew 6 percent.
Charlie Black, a lobbyist and Republican strategist who advised the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008, said the former Alaska governor is probably seeking to keep her options open, and maintain her influence, by launching the bus tour.
“This is the kind of thing you do to stay alive and continue to be a player. I don’t take it as a sign she’s necessarily running,” said Black, who is neutral in the race. “She might have seen that her absence from campaign-types of activities had caused a lot of the press to write her off as a candidate and stop paying attention to her.”
Black said Palin’s “tremendous financial base” and social media-fueled following gives her the luxury of waiting until late in the game -- several months from now -- before needing to announce a presidential bid.
In the meantime, Palin’s leap off the sidelines complicates life for her lesser-known rivals.
“It sucks the oxygen out of their campaigns,” said Terry Madonna, a pollster and political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “She’s a kind of rock star to Christian and social conservatives, so that will create some anxiety for the rest of the field who are looking for that support.”
Foremost among those candidates are Santorum, who highlights social issues such as opposition to abortion rights; Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite who has tapped into a populist, anti-government strain similar to Palin’s; and Pawlenty, who has positioned himself as a conservative willing to take on entrenched interests.
Palin appeals to the Republican conservative base as well as the Tea Party, which includes independents and some conservative Democrats, Mueller said. Mueller’s company, CRC Communications, is promoting the Palin biography film.
“The environment is ripe for a populist, conservative, truth-telling campaign, and I think Sarah Palin could live up to that if she wants to run, or at least make sure that others do,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at or Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.
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