The music swells and then picks up tempo. Sarah Palin is talking about how 2010 will be the year that "commonsense conservative women get things done for our country." She's worried about "these policies coming out of D.C. right now, this fundamental transformation of America," and reports that she is not alone. "Moms kinda just know when something's wrong," she says. "You thought pit bulls were tough? Well, you don't wanna mess with the mama grizzlies!"
Can a two-minute Internet video reshuffle a Republican presidential race before it has even started? Palin's glossy yet authentic clip, released without any fanfare July 8, did just that. It was the surest sign yet that she means to be an energizing factor in this year's midterm elections and will mount a real bid for the White House in 2012. Most compelling is the way the video targets women, specifically moms, whom Palin exhorts to vote in the midterms and halt the Obama agenda. The video features image after image of everyday, determined, smiling, patriotic mothers and grandmothers, all keen to join her army of supporters. Palin calls it a "mom awakening." If she can inspire GOP and independent women to turn out for the party's candidates in November, she could decisively influence the outcome of the midterms.
Palin doesn't need specific policies or even specific criticisms of Obama to crank up the energy. She knows that injecting emotion into the conversation is the most efficient way to spark a movement. Her charming if idiosyncratic way with words may also be an asset: "Look out, Washington, because there's a whole stampede of pink elephants crossing the line, and the ETA stampeding through is Nov. 2, 2010. Lotta women comin' together."
John McCain saw this inspirational side of Palin when he named her his running mate in 2008. Ultimately, that move did him no good, but Palin's video proves that she is savvy and sophisticated enough to harness her star power for political effect, shrugging off the cartoonish taint that has clung to her since she and McCain lost. Many GOP insiders and consultants, some of whom had dismissed Palin's chances as a presidential contender and written her off as a political flameout, say they are impressed by the competence and impact of Palin's new approach. Says veteran Republican strategist Greg Muller: "She's set herself up very, very well. She is only going to get stronger." The majority of voters are still skeptical. A new TIME poll shows Palin losing to Obama 55% to 34%, a lopsided ratio that leads some Republican strategists to predict a wipeout if Palin is eventually chosen as the party's nominee.
But that might not matter. Palin has stayed busy endorsing candidates in competitive Republican primaries, picking her share of winners and losers and, in some contests, helping determine the outcome. Her political-action committee raised more than $865,000 in the past three months and has beefed up its staff. Palin has enjoyed some personal victories too: Levi Johnston, the father of her grandchild, made a public apology to Palin on July 6, complete with a retraction of damaging allegations he made about her family in the past. This week Johnston and Palin's daughter Bristol reannounced their engagement after months of estrangement, removing with apparent serendipity a blemish from her wholesome narrative.
The question for Palin now: Can she build on this moment? Although she has taken few steps to prepare for a presidential contest, her path is becoming clearer. It starts with a big advantage: she would be the only woman running against a half-dozen or more Republican men. As long as she leaves the door to the race open, she can freeze the field, prevent other GOP hopefuls from gaining much traction, keep the media in a perpetual will-she-or-won't-she frenzy and jump into the race whenever she likes. That would be impossible for an ordinary candidate, but Palin could splash in as late as November 2011, just a few months before the voting begins. There is no deadline for signing up for the Iowa caucuses, and when it comes to competing in early-state contests, she will have a far easier time than any previous insurgent. Her candidacy would require almost none of the usual time sinks that force politicians to jump in early: power-broker schmoozing, schedule-intensive fundraising, competitive recruitment of experienced strategists, careful policy development. She would have immediate access to cash, with even small Internet donations likely bringing in millions.
Already the most arresting political figure other than the President, Palin will be even more visible in the coming months. After a year of profitable speaking, bookselling and punditry on Fox, she will do some promotion in August for the paperback release of her best-selling Going Rogue. When it airs in the fall, her documentary series about Alaska on TLC will attract both curiosity and viewers. And after the midterms, her second book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag, will hit stores in time to rack up millions of dollars in Christmas sales. She keeps in touch with her fans via Twitter and Facebook; on July 13 she pushed back hard after the NAACP criticized the Tea Party.
Palin thrives on the unpredictable, and as her new video shows, she can adapt quickly. "What she knows, you can't teach," says Mark McKinnon, a top strategist for George W. Bush and McCain. "And what she doesn't know, she can learn and she's learning fast."