Palin's Last Stand?

Palin's Last Stand?

By Blake D. Dvorak - October 2, 2008

It's come down to one night in St. Louis for Sarah Palin. The Alaska governor, hailed just weeks ago as the answer to all of John McCain's ills, has seen her national image wither to the point where more than half the country (51%) views her as unqualified to be president, according to the latest Pew poll. The question is no longer whether Palin can save McCain and Republican hopes of holding the White House. The question is whether she can save herself.

Palin's problem is only indirectly related to how the left and the mainstream media have tried to destroy her. Mostly those attacks, unfair and at times dishonest, have served to endear Palin to many in the base of the Republican party. Regardless of what happens tonight, Palin's critics are unlikely to change their opinion of her -- even if she wipes the floor with Joe Biden.

Rather, Palin's problem now is with a few of the very conservatives who applauded her selection as McCain's running mate. The Republican base greeted McCain's nomination victory more with resignation than excitement. It would support the author of McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy and a member of the Gang of 14 only because he was right on the core issues: the Iraq war, fiscal discipline, and his promise to appoint strict-constructionist judges. Besides, the alternative - a wholly Democratic government where the top-three power brokers would be, in no particular order, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama - was so much worse.

Along came Palin and it was morning in America again. Here was a genuinely conservative governor from a wilderness state who had taken down the corrupt establishment and boasted the highest approval ratings in the country. That she drove the left and mainstream media into hysterics only increased her likability. Yes, she didn't have much by way of foreign-policy experience, but how could someone who had accomplished so much with so little be a bad thing? Most conservatives judged that it wasn't.

Palin didn't enjoy a honeymoon with the media, which was too busy asking questions about her parenting to notice how her rise to power eclipsed Obama's, but she did have one with the Right. Of the many assets Palin brought to the GOP ticket, perhaps her greatest was her instant ability to rally conservatives to the cause.

Then the cracks began to show. At first, following Palin's non-answer to ABC's Charlie Gibson about her thoughts on the Bush Doctrine, conservatives were ready to defend her. The Bush Doctrine, they noted correctly, has had several iterations, and Gibson's question revealed more about his biases than Palin's answer revealed about her foreign-policy knowledge.

Then came the Katie Couric interview, where Palin's unsteady performance raised even more questions. Two weeks after she'd been criticized for saying that being able to see Russia from her home state counted as foreign policy experience, Palin reiterated the same argument in an even less convincing fashion.

Although Palin was still attracting huge crowds, concern became evident among the conservative commentariat. Some began arguing to "let Palin be Palin."" As Bill Kristol wrote in his New York Times column, "McCain picked Sarah Palin in part because she's a talented politician and communicator. He needs to free her to use her political talents and to communicate in her own voice."

Others, however, had seen enough. Kathleen Parker called for Palin to step down, saying that her three interviews with Gibson, Hannity and Couric "revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate. Who Is Clearly Out Of Her League."

Parker and others remain in the minority, but the net effect of Palin's network interviews is that tonight's debate has become something the McCain campaign really wished it wasn't: Palin's last stand. Had she scored even moderate reviews the media might not be so ready to nail Palin's coffin shut after tonight. At the same time, the media has so lowered expectations of Palin's performance that she stands a good chance of vastly exceeding them. But if she doesn't, more conservative commentators may be likely jump ship, which would give the media a much bigger story than simply that she lost the debate.

Or not. One thing keeps thwarting those who think, like Parker, that Palin is out of her league. Palin's political career up to this point has been a resounding success story. One could argue that it was all luck; that taking down a sitting Republican governor, having already alienated much of her party's establishment, was a fluke; that enjoying the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country was an accident. You could think that. Or you could recognize that Palin is a true political talent.

Either way, Palin is unlikely to silence her mainstream media critics. What she needs to do is silence her conservative ones.

Blake D. Dvorak is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics.

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