For two months she basked — and sizzled — in the world’s hottest celebrity spotlight. Now Sarah Palin has come home to begin the last two years of her term as governor of Alaska.
Everything has changed: Palin’s personal horizon, her relations with the state’s other elected officials, the public’s sense of who she is.
Palin returned to her office Friday amid a brutal crossfire between detractors and defenders in the McCain camp. At the same time, however, a new national poll said 64 percent of Republicans consider her their top choice to run for president in 2012.
Does Palin really want to run for president in four years? And if she does, would it be best to find a way to the U.S. Senate, where she could acquire some of the big-time political and foreign-policy luster lacking in her first national campaign?
Or should she run again for governor in 2010, maintaining her “Washington-outsider” status by taking what one Republican strategist calls “the Hillary Clinton model,” rolling up her sleeves and re-establishing herself as a local hero?
So many questions, so many strategic choices, so many complications that didn’t exist a few short months ago.
What will all this mean to Alaska?
Time to take a deep breath and consider some of the key challenges that lie ahead for Sarah Palin.
1 Federal relations
Gov. Palin spent the last two months questioning the patriotism of the new president. She accused him of hanging out with terrorists. Palin now says it was just the rough-and-tumble of party politics. But how is that going to play when she goes to Washington looking for help with gas line construction or military base protection or exemption from environmental rules?
Is it going to be any better when she goes to Congress? Democrats may not want to polish the star of a future Republican rival. And Alaska’s veteran Republicans, assuming they make it back, are weakened by scandal and not on the best terms with Palin. The governor surprised Young when she endorsed his primary rival this year, and she called for Stevens to resign. Awkward.
Beyond that, Palin campaigned with Sen. John McCain as the scourge of earmarks, and Young and Stevens are the earmarking champs. Everybody has heard by now of our Permanent Fund and those $1,200 checks. Remember when Palin said if Alaskans want to build those bridges, we’d pay for them ourselves?
2 Eternal suspicion
For the rest of her career in Alaska, every move Palin makes will be second-guessed for ulterior motives. Is she taking on this or that priority because it’s good for the state or because it looks good on her resume?
If she travels to New Hampshire to meet with Republicans, is the state paying for her long-distance calls home? Who decided to put the governor’s photo on that tourism brochure? Imagine the snarkiness that will erupt if she flies off to meet industrialists in China or oil ministers in Geneva (never mind that Frank Murkowski spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel his last two years as governor and was gone 112 days over that time).
Alaskans might choose to shrug off some of Palin’s future efforts as legitimate state business. But the national press and bloggers, keeping Alaska under close surveillance, will be jostling one another for fresh angles.