How Sarah Palin Is Winning the War With(in) the GOP

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Ed Reinke / AP

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin

Autumn has come early to Alaska. Around mirror-still Lake Lucille, the leaves are already turning gold. A year ago, Sarah Palin gazed out across this lake as she hunkered down to write a book many felt the world might ignore. She had just resigned as governor of Alaska. The losing 2008 vice-presidential candidate had been roundly written off by what she terms the "lamestream media" as yesterday's news. People in Washington and Wasilla wondered if her time had come and gone. Her "rambling resignation speech should take her off the political map for the duration of the Obama era," wrote conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

Her failing became a theme on the right. "She is now a quitter," George Will declared on ABC. Even Fox News became a soapbox for those writing her off. "It is not clear what her strategy here is by exiting the governorship 2½ years through the term," Karl Rove said on one of its shows. He pronounced himself "perplexed" by her rush for "the national stage that she may not yet be prepared to operate in."

What a difference a year makes.

Palin is now more popular nationally, more in demand by conservative groups as a speaker and far richer than she's ever been. She has earned an estimated $9 million by talking and writing — her first book ended up being a best seller, thank you very much — and she has inked a reported $1 million annual contract with Fox News. Oh, and she's become the most important independent endorser in a generation: her 16-11 win-loss record in the recent GOP primaries gives her a lot of political chits to call in if — just to suppose — she were to weigh a presidential run.

This fall, as Palin looks out over Lake Lucille, she has just wrapped a reality show about Alaska (pocketing $2 million for the effort), she is penning a second book, and her every tweet is devoured by the same media that often scorn her. How, exactly, did this happen? How did Palin, with no official platform and winning little more than disdain from the GOP establishment — and contempt from the Obama-friendly media — make such a comeback? After all, she isn't just proving herself to the snobs in Washington; she's leading an insurgency against them. And she's winning.

The key question, of course, is just how far a Palin insurgency can travel. While she may be the most famous and charismatic Republican in America, there is significant disagreement over how that might translate into power. Polls show that 40% of Republicans doubt she's qualified for the presidency in 2012. There are signs that Palin herself has little interest in building a top-drawer campaign operation. No pollsters or big-time consultants have been hired. She doesn't have a formal spokesperson. Instead, Team Palin is run by a tiny inner circle of old friends and trusted aides.

It's all part of her style. Alaskans are quick to say they've seen this side of what some call "Sarah Barracuda" before. She ran as an outsider in her 2006 bid for Alaska governor — after abruptly resigning her job in 2004 as head of the state's powerful Oil and Gas Commission to blow the whistle on the illicit mixing of politics and business that she witnessed there. She then spent a year traveling around the state, railing about its political corruption and the complacency of then governor Frank Murkowski (a fellow Republican who had appointed her to the commission).

Palin denounced the "old boys' club" Murkowski represented and went on to beat him handily in the 2006 GOP primary. "Everyone thought her political career was dead when she resigned the commission," recalls Gregg Erickson, founding editor of the Alaska Budget Report, which tracks politics in the capital of Juneau. "But she won not only on her charisma but the solid credentials of having stood up successfully to the corrupt power structure in Alaska." He senses echoes of that past today. "There certainly seem to be parallels with what she's doing now."

Immediately following the 2008 loss, Palin tried to make nice with the Washington establishment. She donated to the Senate's old Republican bulls, like Orrin Hatch of Utah, Iowa's Chuck Grassley and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (Frank's daughter). She attended a fundraiser in Washington for her party's congressional candidates, and tried to mend fences with the media.

But like a hunter knowing where the bear is — without knowing precisely how she knows — her gut veered further right a year ago. After flirting with Washington, she retreated to Alaska and became more involved with, and a de facto leader of, the Tea Party movement. There is a synergy between the Tea Party and Palin that has inflated each side, accelerated by the evolving 24-7 news cycle that has covered each nonstop.

It initially blew up in her face. Her endorsement of a little-known, conservative Republican, Doug Hoffman, for a special election in upstate New York in October 2009 backfired. Her backing split the local party apparatus, which favored moderate Dede Scozzafava. It ended up giving the win to Bill Owens, the first Democrat to fill the seat since the Civil War. Yet the publicity Palin's nod generated was instructive: it taught her just how much clout she had begun to command.

This year, she has backed 27 candidates — largely from the Tea Party — including 16 primary winners, mostly in Senate and gubernatorial races. While many — Alaska's Joe Miller, Delaware's Christine O'Donnell and Rand Paul in Kentucky, among them — were originally deemed outside the mainstream, Palin has helped change that river's course. All three won their GOP primaries against more moderate candidates.

She cyber-brandishes her power directly to her followers via a stream of Facebook posts and tweets (as well as a pair of videos). That means she doesn't need to run her talking points and beliefs through traditional media, save for an occasional Fox News chat. And she likes being unpredictable: in many cases, her endorsements take even the candidates themselves by surprise.

So far, she seems politically sure-footed, riding the Tea Party wave like a skilled surfer. "It is just so inspiring to see real people — not politicos, not inside-the-Beltway professionals — come out and speak out and stand up for commonsense, conservative principles," Palin says in a video she released this week. "This party that we call the Tea Party is the future of politics." No one knows what Palin's immediate future holds, never mind the election of 2012. She has been coyly dropping hints. If no one else steps up, "I would offer myself in the name of service to the public," she told Fox News on Wednesday.

Washington pundits are already scoffing at the idea of a Palin candidacy, especially at the notion that her GOP giant-killing makes her the one to beat. Palin's "the front runner?" asked the New York Times' Douthat last weekend. "That's bunkum." But if she has proven anything this year, it's her ability to surprise — and beat expectations.