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Palin Aides Relish Beltway's Skepticism

Palin Aides Relish Beltway's Skepticism

By Scott Conroy - November 19, 2010

Throughout the better part of the last two years, the narrative among influential political operatives and opinion makers in Washington remained unchanged: Sarah Palin would continue to be a dynamic media presence and possible kingmaker in the next presidential election, but she would not be a serious presidential candidate herself.

That conventional wisdom cut across party lines, and even some of Palin's most fervent backers wrote her off as presidential material. "Forget about Sarah Palin as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 and probably ever," Fred Barnes, one of Palin's earliest and most vocal supporters, wrote in The Weekly Standard after Palin resigned as governor of Alaska in July of 2009.

As other prospective 2012 candidates began to build their organizations, courted prominent fundraisers, and meet with influential powerbrokers in Iowa and New Hampshire, Palin was widely seen as having missed the boat. Her political apparatus was frequently dismissed as disorganized, amateurish, and hesitant to take the fundamental steps thought to be necessary to lay the foundation for a viable presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, Palin's small inner circle kept their eyes on the prize, pausing every now and then to chuckle at the dismissiveness of the Beltway establishment.

"Look at what's happened over the past two years, and you tell me that we don't have a more effective strategy than our peers," Palin aide Michael Goldfarb told RealClearPolitics. "Who's been able to get their message out more effectively? Who's had greater influence? And you tell me why we should play by the same rules that the press wants everybody to play by. It doesn't make any sense."

Since resigning from office, Palin has proven time and again the primacy of her influence in the Republican Party, setting the tone and defining the parameters on issues ranging from health care to monetary policy. And she has done it by shattering the traditional rules of communication, using Twitter, Facebook, and her regular appearances on Fox News and conservative radio to bypass the traditional media to whom she and her staff have taken a special delight in deriding.

"She's been very effective at setting up a new paradigm for communicating with people, and it's been a great success," Goldfarb said. "If that marginalizes reporters sometimes, well then boo-hoo."

Now that the midterms are over and the campaign before the presidential campaign has begun, Palin is making some adjustments, fully aware that she cannot tweet, Facebook post, and Sean Hannity her way to the White House. She recently granted extensive interviews to the New York Times and ABC News, and her SarahPAC staff intends to make a more concerted effort to highlight to the media her prepared remarks on the frequent policy speeches she gives.

Meanwhile, Palin's ratings-shattering TLC show, "Sarah Palin's Alaska," will continue to show millions of American homes the kinder, gentler side of Palin's personality each Sunday night for the next seven weeks.

Palin's outsized influence on the midterm elections and her most recent pronouncements about her presidential intentions have caused the D.C. narrative to shift in recent weeks, as Beltway logic now holds that Palin is indeed seriously interested in running for president and could be a strong contender to win the Republican nomination.

SarahPAC officials have begun fielding more frequent calls from reporters asking about her revamped focus on policy and newly candid statements about being interested in the presidency, leading Palin confidantes to jokingly speculate that "the Beltway herd" suddenly woke up and decided that she is indeed serious about a presidential run after someone began talking about it at a cocktail party.

"She hasn't changed her statement that ‘if the door is open, I'll go through it'; she hasn't changed in any way what she's said all along." Rebecca Mansour, a close Palin aide told RealClearPolitics. "None of them really understand her or get her in a lot of ways. They underestimate her, which makes me laugh. They don't really understand how she thinks. She always keeps them guessing because they just don't get it."

For over two years, Palin has been more candid about how she is leaning toward a presidential run than just about any other likely Republican candidate. After all, it was in her very first national television interview after the 2008 election when she told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren in not-so-coy language that she would "plow through" any doors that God opened for her to the presidency.

And by all indications, members of Palin's staff appear to expect her to run and are acting accordingly.

"I think she'd be an excellent president," Mansour said. "Of course, I would support her absolutely if she ran."

When Palin traveled to Iowa in September to speak at a Republican Party dinner, her speech was greeted with media attention befitting a presidential address, but the former governor was widely panned in Washington for neglecting to meet with key players in the first caucus state.

Mansour laughed at the criticism that holds that Palin has shown herself unwilling to do the necessary grunt work of running a grassroots campaign.

"Of course she understands what she needs to do," Mansour said. "At that time, we were trying to get people elected, and she was doing what she needed to do to get them elected. I think she's one of those people who really takes that old adage that there's a time for everything, and when the time comes to do that, she'll do it."

Mansour paused before adding, "if she decides to run."

The consensus may have shifted to the idea that Palin is indeed preparing for a presidential campaign in earnest, but many establishment Republicans write off her chances of ultimate victory in private conversations and unattributed quotations. Meanwhile, Palin aides continue to be unfazed by the lack of respect that the former governor engenders among some in the media and many of her likely opponents' aides.

"If she was out there making the case for bigger government and more welfare and universal health care in the same tone and in the same vein, she would be a hero of the New York Times editorial board," Michael Goldfarb said. "They don't like what she's saying. It's not how she says it or the basis of why she says it. They don't agree with her, and they see her as threatening, so what you get is this, ‘She's not up to the job,' and there are people in the Republican Party who will say that, too, because people have different preferences as far as leaders in the party and have different agendas. But out there in the real world, Republicans respect Sarah Palin and they listen to what she says, and she has a real impact. And that's why she was the most coveted endorsement among Republicans in the last election."

Along with longtime McCain foreign policy aide Randy Scheunemann, Goldfarb briefs Palin primarily on foreign policy. Both men were publicly loyal to Palin during the internal civil war that developed in the final days of the 2008 campaign, and no Palin aide disputes that loyalty remains her foremost requirement for anyone who wants to work for her.

As some other prospective candidates have selectively chosen their battles, in fear of overexposure or offending the wrong person, Palin has weighed in frequently and forcefully on a wide range of topics. But when asked to define her foreign policy views, Goldfarb was careful enough not to put her in a box.

"I don't see it in that binary set of choices," he said. "She supported the president on Afghanistan, his call for increased troops there. She's also been at odds with the president over his rather shabby treatment of some of America's key allies, particularly Israel, but more broadly she's made statements about Japan, and she spoke out clearly on missile defense when that was shelved, and the poor treatment of allies in Eastern Europe around that."

A visit to Israel is high on Palin's current to-do list, and her staff is still hoping to arrange a trip for her to meet with one of her political heroines, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Palin has taken a particular interest in the European debt crisis as of late, and SarahPAC recently hired Joshua Livestro - a Dutch newspaper columnist who has also contributed to the pro-Palin web site Conservatives4Palin.com - to research the topic for Palin on a freelance basis.

Palin's second book, America By Heart, will be released on Tuesday and is a near shoo-in to join her first title, Going Rogue, as a quick bestseller. Unlike Going Rogue's biographical focus, Palin's new book is mostly philosophical in nature and reads as a series of essays on well-travelled topics ranging from the role of faith in the public sphere to the concept of American exceptionalism.

Palin and her aides recognize that her poll numbers with independent voters are nowhere near where they need to be, but they believe that she will find a way to rekindle the enthusiasm she engendered among the middle of the political spectrum when she was first announced as John McCain's running mate and delivered a barnburner of a speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

Her ideas poll well, they say, and she is far more interested in ideas than in party politics. During her first year-and-a-half as governor, Palin often worked more closely with Democrats than she did with Republicans, her aides will remind anyone who questions her broad appeal.

But hasn't the scathing and often derisive tone she has reverted to in engaging with the other side made her irredeemable to everyone outside her conservative base?

"People don't understand this, but she's a happy warrior," Mansour said. "She enjoys a good debate-she really does. When she was goofing on Politico and calling them ‘puppy kicking, anti-dentites,' she was saying that tongue-in-cheek and smiling. It's not really that she's thin-skinned."

Mansour granted that Palin's casual use of the Twitter medium has made it difficult for many observers to understand that she has a smile on her face when she makes her most biting criticisms, but she insisted that Palin is "one of the happiest people I know."

Asked if Palin would put her record up against any other elected official in the country, Mansour did not hesitate. "Absolutely," she said. "And we would win on that undoubtedly because of what she accomplished in the time she was there."

Mansour cited Palin's achievements ranging from her successful fight to invite competition for plans to build a natural gas pipeline in Alaska to education reform. Mansour also offered without prompting her take on Palin's record on public employee retirement systems-an issue that sitting governors are currently facing nationwide.

"I don't think that people realize she had to reform that in Alaska, as well, and there was tremendous pressure put on her to return to the unfunded underwater defined benefits program, but she had to reform it to make it solid, and because she didn't cave on it, the unions ran full page ads against her in Juneau," Mansour said. "She knows these issues because she's been at the forefront of them for 20 years in public office."

Palin was first elected to the Wasilla City Council in 1992, which was technically 18 years ago. But then again, the new "20 years" talking point in Palin world might work quite nicely once the calendar flips to 2012.

Team Palin does not seem overly concerned about the question of the former governor's "gravitas," in light of her social media persona and TV stardom, but the question continues to be raised. After all, skeptics charge, how many "documentaries about Alaska" include scenes in which the matriarch of a family is shown warning her teenaged daughter not to bring boys into her room?

"If you have to sit and complain about gravitas then you don't have any," Mansour said. "I remember a time when everybody was appalled that Bill Clinton appeared on the ‘Arsenio Hall Show' to play the saxophone. Politics adapts to the times and how you reach the people."

Palin's aides are certainly cognizant of the difficult road they have to navigate in explaining to the broader public Palin's decision to resign with a year-and-a-half left in her first term as governor.

Perhaps just as daunting in a Republican primary will be the squirming Palin will have to endure when she is inevitably pressed by free market fundamentalists over her support for TARP during the 2008 campaign.

"When you are running at the bottom of the ticket, you have to follow the top of the ticket's lead; that's just the way it goes," Mansour said in a likely preview of Palin's own explanation. "But I think she's adamant that this is not good-adamant that the interference, picking winners and losers, and too big to fail, is not right."

Palin's challenges remain numerous as she comes to a decision on whether to run for president. If the answer is indeed "yes," one of her first big moves will be planning the official announcement of her campaign-a date that one Palin confidante privately agreed will likely come later in 2011, after her lesser known opponents launch their own runs and she can assess the field.

Although Palin's obstacles remain formidable, Mansour offered a warning shot to anyone who still assumes that the former governor's star has shined as brightly as it ever will.

"They should not underestimate her," Mansour said. "Well actually, they're welcome to, because that would make it fun for us."

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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