That Sarah Palin Video: Beware of the Mama Grizzlies

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Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin's new video has all the hallmarks of a campaign ad. There is the slow-motion montage set to a soaring score; shots of the candidate pumping hands and hugging fans; a flick at the race's November finish line. But Palin, the star of the spot, is not a candidate for any office — at least, not yet. And none of the female hopefuls Palin is backing this fall are anywhere to be found.

In the year since Palin left the governor's mansion, observers attempting to divine her destination have wrung every ounce of meaning from her every move. To some, the new ad, titled "Mama Grizzlies," is a sign that she may have her sights set on a White House bid. The 1 min. 50 sec. video splices together footage of Tea Party rallies and Palin's public appearances and sets the footage to uplifting music and Palin's own narration, mostly culled from a May speech.

The message is one of women's empowerment. "These policies coming out of D.C. right now, this fundamental transformation of America — well, a lot of women who are very concerned about their kids' futures are saying, we don't like this fundamental transformation, and we're going to do something about it," Palin says. As she speaks, the camera locks onto examples of these women, who are shown embracing their families and toting signs like "No Government Run Healthcare," "Don't Tread on Me" or "We Heart Sarah USA." "Look out Washington," she intones, "'cause there's a whole stampede of pink elephants crossing the line and the E.T.A. for them stampeding through is November 2, 2010."

Palin's reference is to the female politicians she endorsed this cycle, including G.O.P. gubernatorial candidates Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Susana Martinez of New Mexico. Just minutes before posting the ad on her Facebook page, Palin announced she was also backing CeCe Heil, "another tough 'mama grizzly'" running for Congress in Tennessee's 5th District. "I'm glad it's the year of the woman, and I'm glad she recognizes that," says Fred Malek, a veteran of Republican politics and a longtime fan of Palin's.

None of these women rate a mention in the video, however. Palin may be a powerful surrogate, but she isn't sharing the stage. In some ways, the spot is signature Sarah — folksy and dogged, with a hearty dollop of anti-Washington boilerplate dissolving in the adulation of her fans. But its high production values and deft editing are new. Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who worked for President George W. Bush, says the ad is successful because it stops short of glitzy. "It works because it's not too slick," McKinnon wrote in an email to TIME. "It has a raw, documentary feel which makes it seem authentic. And authenticity is what voters are yearning for today."

"I loved watching it," says Fred Davis III, the G.O.P. media consultant behind the McCain campaign ad that dubbed Barack Obama a "celebrity" and Carly Fiorina's mesmerizing "Demon Sheep" ad. "But it wasn't because it had brilliant editing or brilliant music. It's that Sarah Palin is a great communicator. The video was her." CNN's Rick Sanchez went farther, calling the performance "Reaganesque." According to Politico, the spot was shot by a single, unidentified videographer and produced in consultation with her political action committee, SarahPAC (which did not answer TIME's requests for comment).

But like anything Palin does, the video is also generating its share of groans. David Frum, a conservative writer who is a frequent critic of Palin's, noted the lack of diversity among the women in the video. "Republicans normally work hard to ensure that their ads feature non-white faces, to present an image of welcome and inclusion," he wrote. More important, the spot is devoid of policy ideas. Palin is good at stoking conservative fervor but both the seismic cultural shift she bemoans and the antidote she prescribes remain fuzzy. In the ad, Palin says, "It seems like it's kind of a mom awakening in the last year and a half, where women are rising up and saying, 'no, we've had enough already.' Because moms kind of just know when something's wrong... Here in Alaska I always think of the mama grizzly bears that rise up on their hind legs when somebody's coming to attack their cubs, to do something adverse toward their cubs. You thought pit bulls were tough? You don't want to mess with the mama grizzlies."

There's no question that this sort of rhetoric has been hugely lucrative for Palin, who has now been compared to a barracuda, a pit bull, a bear and an elephant — by herself and by her supporters. But more often than not, an ad is just an ad. Even if this is indeed a harbinger of Palin's presidential intentions, she'll need more than animal imagery and women's intuition to get to the White House.