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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That a politician of Palin's stature often wrestles with her schedule is a reflection, aides say, of her being a mother of five without a nanny. The Friday before the elections, for example, 2-year-old Trig had a routine operation related to his Down syndrome, and Palin did not want to commit to any events until she was sure that he was recovering. That's a decision every parent can understand — and that constant calculation is a part of her unusual appeal with women. Her aides say family issues will be a big factor in Palin's decision about her future, but which way they cut is anyone's guess. Even her close advisers acknowledge that Palin is playing by a new set of rules. "Sarah does things differently," notes John Coale, who set up her PAC. "She doesn't hire a lot of consultants. She, as they say, listens to the beat of a different drum."

Will She Repeat Her Own History?
Asked via e-mail what she would do if elected, Palin carefully says the first priority "of the next Republican President" should be "to sign a bill for the repeal and replacement of Obamacare with true free-market, patient-centered reform." Obamacare's repeal, she adds, "would help to cut future deficits. It would also send a strong signal to America's workers and employers that government is back on their side and is no longer seeking to impose its one-size-fits-all 'solutions' from above." Palin says she would "also look for entitlement reform, as well as a systemwide audit of government spending with a goal to move us toward zero-based budgeting practices and, ultimately, a balanced budget. We need to start really living within our means. As any mother or father will tell you, don't spend what you don't have."

Palin implies that she is unworried by the way she has become a lightning rod to both the right and the left. "My positions are not at all controversial. The majority of Americans agree with me across the board on the issues. I think it's a personal thing that probably stems from media demonization of me and mischaracterization of what I stand for," she says. "Shoot, if I read and believed all the lies these guys write about me, I wouldn't like me either!"

Such statements suggest that Palin may get into the race just to set the record straight. Her new book — a folksy mashup of Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Calvin Coolidge, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times — argues that the U.S. under Obama has lost its sense of pride and come unhinged from the values of family and small government. She continues to attack the Washington crowd, by which she pointedly means both Democrats and Republicans. Palin has used this playbook before. When she ran for governor of Alaska, she abruptly resigned her chairmanship of the statewide board on oil and gas conservation to protest the commission's corruption and then launched a revolt against the "boys' club" in Juneau. She is poised to run a similar play against GOP insiders in Washington. "Some in the GOP establishment have a problem with me because I've been taking on the good-ol'-boy network for a couple of decades now," she says, "and some of the good ol' boys obviously don't like it."

Palin has time on her side. Her popularity among conservatives means that she can wait until the last minute — perhaps as late as a year from now — before jumping into the Republican sweepstakes. And she could raise millions of dollars overnight. A number of veteran GOP operatives think she could win the nomination, even if polls today give her no chance of beating Obama. If Palin does run, "there would be excited thunder from the grass roots, celebration in the White House and despair among GOP leaders," says Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican consultant.

But Palin thinks Obama is vulnerable, and she implies that she is the one to take him on. "In battleground states, he's polling at 40% or below," she notes. "The country is rejecting his agenda ... My vision of America is diametrically opposed to his. He sees America as the problem. I see America as the solution." Asked what she makes of Obama's presidency thus far, Palin quipped, "Two words: Jimmy Carter." Asked who can beat him, she needed seven more: "Someone who can draw a sharp contrast."

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