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So what exactly is at stake? Does Palin really want to be President and assume the burdens that go with the job? Or is she just teasing the Grand Old Party while she lays the foundations for a more comfortable life as a public provocateur, doing TV, writing books, making speeches and dabbling in politics as it serves her greater goals? The former scenario is what many in the Republican Party are dreading; the latter one is freezing the likely GOP presidential field until she clarifies her plans. And Palin, naturally, wisely and consistently, is coy about the answer. "I would run because the country is more important than my ease, though I'm not necessarily living a life of ease," says Palin, who answered questions from TIME via e-mail. And in a shot at Obama's habit of playing golf during the "recovery summer," she added, "I'm very busy helping people and causes. So busy, in fact, I haven't had time to hit the links in quite a few years."
The golfing dig at Obama is exactly the kind of barb that has delighted Palin's fans and infuriated her detractors from her first moments on the national stage more than two years ago. She has a sixth sense for her opponents' weak spots a useful tool in politics but perhaps an even more valuable one when considering life as a permanent pundit. She doesn't act like a candidate: she hasn't kissed the rings of GOP leaders in Washington, hasn't hired pollsters and Svengalis or made a habit of spending her weekends in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. GOP veterans say she may be the first Republican hopeful in a generation who doesn't need to bother with these prerequisites. She does have a growing staff with roots in the conservative wing of the party. But one clue to the Mystery of Sarah is that her circle of aides looks less like a campaign in the making than a quirky family business in which Palin is the chief product.
At the center of the enterprise is her husband Todd, 46 part Mr. Mom, part manager, part consort. As she writes in America by Heart, "He has been a partner to me in every conceivable way in life, in love, and in doing battle with the New York Times." (When asked about divorce rumors in the summer of 2009, Palin gasped, "Have you seen Todd?") In the past few years, Todd quit his job on Alaska's North Slope as a production operator for BP, began handing the family's modest commercial-fishing business to the couple's 21-year-old son Track and became CEO of Sarah Inc., functioning as chief of staff, top adviser, lead scheduler and family enforcer. The Palins still drop everything, though, for his annual participation in the Iron Dog snow-machine race.
If Palin has no Karl Rove or David Axelrod whispering in her ear (she says she doesn't need one), only her husband comes close. His small-business experience makes him a strong advocate for small government and lower taxes. He listens in on most of her interviews and preps her for TV appearances from the studio Fox News built in their Wasilla home. He's the one who will leave staffers with a kind word or the family's thanks; he's also the one who, when it's required, does the firing. He is often more passionate than his wife when he perceives a wrong. He monitors the news about her with a Google alert that goes to his BlackBerry.
Below Todd, the lines of authority blur and then largely disappear. Palin's inner circle consists of four far-flung staffers who have little in common other than their loyalty to her. Thomas Van Flein, 47, has served as the family lawyer for several years and has expanded his portfolio from personal matters to everything from endorsements to a prospective presidential bid. Mansour, 36, is a former Hollywood screenwriter turned political blogger who is based in Los Angeles. Her fierce championing of Palin online won her a spot on Palin's staff soon after Palin resigned from office. Andrew Davis, 33, was brought on to help Palin vet Republicans seeking her endorsement in 2010. A former campaign aide to George W. Bush, Davis works out of Sacramento, and his role has steadily grown from researcher to general political adviser. Virginia-based Tim Crawford, the treasurer of Palin's PAC, worked in the Reagan White House and, at 58, is the oldest and most experienced of the group.
Like most retainers, Palin's crew is not a team of rivals: it is devotedly, self-effacingly protective of its boss. Palin has hired some people virtually sight unseen, and yet the most important credential appears to be loyalty. For example, Joshua Livestro, a bombastic Dutch conservative living in England who used to blog at Conservatives4Palin.com, won a spot doing research at $4,000 a month after Mansour noticed his ferocious defense of Palin online. (He has never met Palin or any members of her staff face to face.) Foreign policy aide Michael Goldfarb, a former McCain staffer, has met Palin in person only "once or twice," he says, but has become one of the few staffers trusted enough to speak with reporters. Palin's wildly popular videos, meanwhile, were shot and produced by Eric Welch, a country-music-video specialist Palin met backstage at the National Tea Party Convention earlier this year. "The staff," says Crawford, "has grown organically. We don't have titles. When something's needed, we all pitch in, from xeroxing and collating to weighing in on endorsements and speeches to traveling with her."
The main gang of six Sarah, Todd, Crawford, Mansour, Van Flein and Davis has settled into something of a routine this year: Palin and her husband receive a daily morning briefing from Davis and Mansour via e-mail. It includes links to articles on candidates she's endorsed, what's happening inside the Beltway and around the world, and local sports news in the areas where she's traveling. The staff holds three conference calls a week usually without Palin but the conversation via Skype, e-mail and cell phone is continuous.