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

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Palin expects long days from her staff, and she has lost nearly a dozen part- or full-time aides in the past year. Many, such as spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton, speechwriter Lindsay Hayes and domestic-policy adviser Kim Daniels, have left on amicable terms or for personal reasons. But she can be an exacting taskmaster and like most pols is quick to freeze people out if she doubts their fealty, several privately say. Still, comebacks by prodigal staffers aren't unheard of. The current constellation of staff, Palin recently told TIME, suits her fine. "I don't need 'handlers.' I don't like traveling with 'an entourage.' I have a few very good people who work for me, and I really don't see the need for a large, expensive bureaucracy."

Sarah 2.0
The most intriguing thing Palin has done since 2008 is march steadily to the right. Once a moderate Republican who proudly appealed to Alaska's independent voters, she is now much more overtly conservative. Though her powerful videos, meant as they are for mass audiences, usually lack specifics, her speeches and tweets are far more pointed. She has mocked Obama's "vast" nuclear-arms experience acquired as a community organizer and slammed him for apologizing to the world for America's greatness. In a speech to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in April, she hit Obama for "coddling our enemies and alienating allies" and for offering "tepid sanctions" on North Korea.

Palin has lately folded into her Facebook posts a healthy dose of kitchen-table economics, as when in early December she called on governors to resist federal bailouts and get their budgets in order. She has accused the Administration of bankrupting the government by trying to hire its way out of the recession. She delights in pointing out the inconsistent scrutiny of the "lamestream media." "The biggest change I've seen in her in the last year is that her scope is much broader," says Van Flein. "When I first met her, oil and gas, making the state more efficient — those were the issues that consumed her. Her focus has broadened to where her targets are national, foreign and economic issues."

If Palin has shrewdly anticipated the Tea Party's rise, the mechanics of her operation are a little pokier. She hasn't made a big fundraising push, holding just two events for her PAC this year, compared with Mitt Romney's nine. Still, her popularity has helped her rake in the cash online and by mail: through her PAC, now 23 months old, Palin has raised $5.4 million, more than Tim Pawlenty and Haley Barbour combined, but less than Romney, who has raised $8.8 million. The bulk of her funds have gone to pay for her travel, staff salaries and fundraising itself, and she spent about the same amount on 2010 candidates as her likely rivals did: less than 10%. But Romney has devoted the past two years to building a much broader network of statewide PACs, which will enable him to raise millions more if he proves successful in the early contests. Palin has not moved beyond her simple federal PAC.

The pattern of Palin's endorsements in 2010 signals that she at the very least wants the option to run. She endorsed 92 GOP candidates this year, some after careful consideration, others on the fly. Palin favored hopefuls much like herself — underdog conservative women, or mama grizzlies, as she called them — but she had a checklist too: she looked for those who were pro-life and anti-stimulus and backed expanded oil and gas drilling, including opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Her picks were not strictly ideological; when it came to states that are important in the 2012 GOP presidential calendar, Palin was much more pragmatic. She backed Terry Branstad for governor in Iowa and Kelly Ayotte for Senate in New Hampshire over candidates preferred by the local Tea parties. And where she was bold, she was strategically bold: she got behind South Carolina gubernatorial hopeful Nikki Haley very early in 2010, when Haley was trailing her rivals. That was a long-shot bet in a state that has been the make-or-break contest for Republican presidential hopefuls. Governor-elect Haley now owes Palin a debt.

There is something unmistakably improvised about the way Palin operates. Eleventh-hour decisions mean that her team has had its share of missed flights, misspelled candidates' names, appearances canceled at the last minute, endorsements in races attributed to the wrong state, to say nothing of made-up words like "refudiated." Her endorsements often took recipients by surprise, and when she did campaign for a candidate, it was often so late that the local reporters didn't even know she was in the state. Three days before the elections in November, Palin was in New York City for a series of Fox News interviews. She had hoped to add a day trip to New Hampshire on Nov. 1 to appear on behalf of Ayotte but discovered that her Fox commitments were more demanding than she had expected. So the Ayotte trip was scrubbed. It was not a big decision as these things go, but it was a reminder that political chits are a much smaller consideration for Palin than they might be for other presidential hopefuls at this stage.

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