Palin in Progress: What Does She Want?

Is Sarah Palin running for President? Or to be America's leading conservative celebrity? The former Alaska governor spent most of 2010 having it both ways. How long will she keep everyone guessing?

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Marco Grob for TIME

For the longest time, Sarah Palin was leery of Facebook. Some of the comments left on her page during the 2008 vice-presidential campaign were so withering and unpleasant that it took months of coaxing by her staff and her daughters Bristol and Willow to convince Palin that she should give it another try. So she waded back into the digital fray just after she resigned the Alaska governorship and as her aides were compiling a new press list. Her first Facebook post, in August 2009, accused the Obama White House of creating "death panels" as part of health care reform.

That offhand remark, as inaccurate as it was incendiary, helped incite weeks of embarrassing town-hall meetings for Democrats, which in turn nearly brought down the Administration's top priority. Palin, working at the time in San Diego on her first book, was surprised by her post's galvanizing power. With just a few keystrokes, she discovered, she could ruin White House press secretary Robert Gibbs' day, or as she puts it, "I find it a great way to communicate with people directly without the media filter."

There was no more talk of press lists. Since then, Palin has posted 307 messages to her 2.5 million Facebook fans, reaching her base much as Ronald Reagan reached his in the 1970s with his weekly radio commentaries. Eight Palin lieutenants scattered across the country were quietly given the job of policing her site. To this day, they scrub anything that is threatening, pornographic or unfit for children; that questions Barack Obama's citizenship or the parentage of Palin's toddler son Trig; or that hints that the government was behind the 9/11 attacks. Beyond that, though, pretty much anything goes, and over the past year, she has used her page and her Twitter account to promote her books and television show, endorse nearly 100 Republican candidates and blow Denali-size holes in the daily news cycle.

While other Republicans followed predictable and even plodding paths toward the White House this year, Palin has moved along two parallel tracks, one befitting a candidate, the other designed for a celebrity. It is often hard to tell where one stops and the other begins, and that is by design. A presidential candidate used to need a central headquarters and satellite offices in all the early primary states; now all a contender like Palin needs is a cable modem. Working largely from her lakeside house in Wasilla, Alaska, Palin raised millions of dollars, produced three viral Internet videos and endorsed more than seven dozen Republican candidates (most of whom prevailed).

At the same time, however, she worked more on her profile than on her platform, releasing her second best-selling book in two years and starring in her own cable television series and in the process putting as much as $13 million in the bank. Palin has been particularly adroit at keeping her name front and center on both stages, whether jabbing Washington Republicans for their pork-barrel spending or turning up in Hollywood to watch her daughter Bristol advance to the final round of Dancing with the Stars. (Bristol's ribald safe-sex PSA, meanwhile, became something of a YouTube sensation.)

Palin's maneuvering has Republicans a little stressed out. Barbara Bush, who recently expressed hope that Palin might stay in Alaska, isn't the only GOP elder voicing concern over a potential Palin run for the White House. "The same leaders who fret that Sarah Palin could devastate their party in 2012 are too scared to say in public what they all complain about in private," wrote Joe Scarborough, a former GOP Congress-man and host of MSNBC's Morning Joe, in an op-ed. "Enough. It's time for the GOP to man up." Only Obama seems unfazed by Palin's game. On Nov. 24, he was quoted as saying that he doesn't "think about" Palin, but even if that statement is accurate, he is perhaps the only person in politics who can reasonably make the claim.

If anything, Palin looms even larger in the public consciousness now than she did two years ago, a fact that has implications for the Republican Party, Obama and the rest of the nation. There is little sign that she has a master plan to capture the GOP nomination, and yet her moves over the past year suggest that her political intuition is easily as good as that of her more experienced (and all male) rivals. Indeed, her go-with-her-gut confidence is something many voters think Obama often lacks. "She has amazing instincts," says Rebecca Mansour, Palin's speechwriter. "That said, they're never uninformed decisions ... She knows what's at stake."

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