PHOENIX—Sarah Palin suffered her final indignity as John McCain's running mate on Tuesday, when her request to speak at his election-night rally in Phoenix was denied. So ended a GOP campaign that had been increasingly marked, in its final weeks, by internal tension and suspicion. But now that the campaign is over and President-elect Obama actually is "measuring the drapes," Palin can talk all she wants—and start making decisions for herself. So what is she likely to do?
First, Palin has some cleaning up to do back home. The presidential election, which focused unusual attention on Alaska and her hometown of Wasilla, left some enemies and former allies seething. The national spotlight also tarnished what had been a stellar reputation, after revelations about massive earmark requests and her "bridge to nowhere" switcheroo. She also faces tough budget decisions now that the price of oil, a major Alaskan revenue source, has dropped. Factor in Sen. Ted Stevens' indictment, conviction, and subsequent re-election, and Palin's got her hands full.
Some image repair is also in order. By Election Day, two-thirds of the electorate thought Palin was unqualified to be commander in chief. Meanwhile, 44 percent of likely voters said McCain's veep choice made them less likely to vote for him, according to one poll. Some argue that negative feelings toward Palin didn't convince people to oppose McCain—after all, of the 60 percent of voters who said Palin's presence on the ticket was an important factor in their decision, more voted for McCain than for Obama. But that doesn't mean Palin wasn't a drag on the ticket. It just means she didn't single-handedly sink it.
Then there's the identity crisis. Does Palin now govern as the nonpartisan, issues-based leader of yore? Or does she continue to carry the hyperpartisan mantle she embraced in the presidential campaign? The two modes aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. (Her spokesman, in one of the campaign's more inspired metaphors, compared her to a diamond with multiple facets.) But a national audience that knows her only as the Next Big Republican Thing might expect her to be partisan.
Still, as her former running mate would say, the fundamentals of Sarah Palin are strong. Her conservative detractors—Colin Powell, David Brooks, and Christopher Buckley among them—were put off not by her personality but rather her lack of knowledge about certain national and foreign-policy issues. Such deficiencies can be addressed easily. Meanwhile, to use another McCainism, Palin was a surge for the ticket. Rally attendance skyrocketed. Approval ratings went up. Palin's convention speech attracted more viewers than Obama's. "I'll take it," said McCain adviser Mark Salter, looking back.
Moreover, those who called Palin an embarrassment fail to consider the alternatives. If McCain had picked Mitt Romney, the narrative would have been how much they hated each other; Tim Pawlenty, and crowds would have remained in the low hundreds. "If we picked [Joe] Lieberman, that convention would have been a disaster," says McCain spokesman and blogger Michael Goldfarb. Once these alternate-reality scenarios become clear, aides say, Palin's candidacy will look better.
And anyhow, four years is plenty of time. Remember that Palin had all of two days' notice (if that) about her nomination, and less than a month to prepare for her first debate. Even the best politicians have trouble shifting gears that fast. "Take John McCain and put him into the last 60 days of a governor's race in Alaska," says Republican strategist Stuart Stevens. "He wouldn't know the nuances of the North Slope vs. the suburbs of Anchorage."
From that perspective, Palin's unpreparedness wasn't her fault—if she really thought she was ready to be commander in chief, she could have run in the primaries. (Then again, she accepted McCain's offer.) Over the next four years, though, she'll have plenty of time to bone up on Russo-Georgian relations, missile defense, and her least favorite Supreme Court decisions.
But the best thing Palin can do is go home and get back to work. Stevens calls it the Hillary Clinton model: Take a big personality, dial it back, and roll up your sleeves. That means tackling Alaska-specific issues—see through to completion the pipeline she has been championing; fix the ailing state budget; and introduce other energy initiatives. Some suggest she might run for Senate once Republican Lisa Murkowski's term is up in 2010, or in a special election if Ted Stevens gets booted from the Senate in 2009. But she's probably better off running for re-election as governor in 2010, says Stuart Stevens (no relation to Ted). "If she's a wildly successful governor, she can claim credit for what she does, instead of being one of 100."
None of this will happen in a vacuum. Over the next four years, Palin will get more national scrutiny than any Alaska governor ever has. (She's already received more invitations to appear on SNL than any sitting governor.) Her best strategy may be to ignore it all and focus on the mundane, essential, and below-freezing details of her home state.