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09.17.10

Watch Your Back, Sarah

Palin helped make Christine O’Donnell’s victory possible. Will Sarah’s mini-me steal her limelight? Margaret Carlson on the dangers of the new It Girl.

Some people may think it accidental that Sarah Palin has left the stage at this weekend’s Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit to Christine O'Donnell. The summit is a crucial event on the Republican calendar, a stop for any Republican who wants the conservative activists’ seal of approval and a beauty contest for GOP presidential hopefuls who vie to win its straw poll.

I think it’s wise that Palin is otherwise occupied. Better not to be upstaged by the new It Girl on the block. Sure, Palin created the monster now threatening to steal her thunder by endorsing the unknown O’Donnell four days before Tuesday’s primary. She stunned everyone by beating former Congressman and Governor Mike Castle for the chance to run for former Senator Joe Biden's seat.

Often we don't realize when we are cooperating in our own demise, a classic tale, memorialized in All About Eve. Bette Davis's Margo Channing, the venerable star of Broadway, lets the adoring Eve Harrington, the fresher, prettier version of herself, into her life only to find her career eclipsed by the outwardly docile ingénue.

Why would Palin want an obvious knockoff hawking her wares on the shores of the Delaware? She can tolerate Mamma Grizzlies who aren't poaching her act, like Sharron Angle and Rep. Michele Bachmann. They acknowledge she's the Big Mamma. But look at O'Donnell. She used to be a dead ringer for Elaine on Seinfeld until this election. Now, she’s a mini-me of the queen of the tundra.

It's an unmistakable homage, if not poaching, as O’Donnell struts around in a bright red suit with the big smile, the bedhead hair and the glasses she doesn't seem to need but wears for cosmetic reasons. With some new coin in her pocket (she raised $1.3 million in 48 hours after her stunning upset and is known to spend campaign cash on her rent), it's only a matter of time before she upgrades the plastic frames to some Palinesque Kawasakis and gets the choppy bangs feathered. If she bent the rules to spend campaign donations on her rent, surely she'll be spending it completing the look.

Like Eve, O'Donnell has some striking advantages. Although with soft lighting, the pair look like they were separated at birth, in fact, the baby-faced O'Donnell looks less like a twin than a daughter. Time is cruel to women, especially on HDTV. Your older man becomes a distinguished Old Lion and a woman just becomes old, aging in dog years. O'Donnell at 41 is five years younger than the 46-year-old Palin, who is a grandmother after all.

Why would Palin want an obvious knockoff hawking her wares on the shores of the Delaware?

Which brings up another plus. While O'Donnell has plenty to be embarrassed about, tall tales about graduating college years before she did, getting fired for running a for-profit public-relations business out of a nonprofit, she doesn't have children or pesky virtual in-laws to worry about. There will not be multiple People covers featuring her daughter and an on-again, off-again putative fiancé, Levi Johnston, no revelations that Palin turned a blind eye to Levi sleeping with Bristol while she holed up in the bedroom watching decorating shows.

Palin had to make a choice between public office and making money off her fame and so gave up the stature of the governor's office. But O'Donnell can have it both ways. She lives on fumes. Earning less than $6,000 last year, a Senate salary of $174,000 with retirement and dental will look like the king's ransom to her. If she wins, she gets both the platform and dignity of office and a cushy life.

O'Donnell also was to a TV studio born, completely unfazed when she makes bizarre remarks or speaks with a lack of substance. Palin was rattled when she couldn't remember a newspaper she'd read or a Supreme Court opinion she would change in an interview with Katie Couric. Even now, Palin can get the deer-in-the-headlights look when she doesn't know something. For instance, on Thursday night, on the Bill O'Reilly show, she couldn't remember who she'd endorsed in the New Hampshire race—even though her choice had won a nail-biter in the Granite State 24 hours earlier (no more calls; it is Kelly Ayotte, former attorney general). Palin stared blankly for what seemed an eternity.

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No matter what is happening around her, O'Donnell remains blissfully unperturbed before the camera. Back when she headed up SALT (Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth), she was a guest multiple times on Bill Maher's show Politically Incorrect. She blithely ignored the reaction of the audience and other guests who hooted when she said she wouldn't lie to Hitler even to save a Jew hiding in her house and that sex was for procreation only, and that today's youth was going to hell in a handbasket. By flirting with and turning to Maher, she kept him in her corner. He may have been using her as grist for his mill but was not immune to her charm, recognizing the degree to which the camera loved her.

No wonder revelations that she thought Biden had tapped her phone and that she had staff check the shrubbery looking for men who might have followed her home leave her unperturbed. Her opponent, Democrat Chris Coons, recognized this in his debate with her Thursday night, taking all of it off the table.

The day after the election, she turned a criticism of uber-Republican Karl Rove, who'd accused her of saying too many "nutty things" to win the general election before endorsing her under pressure from Rush Limbaugh, on its head. Rove, she said, was stuck on her not getting her degree from Fairleigh Dickinson until this month because he was not part of the wealthy establishment unaware of what it's like to have to pay off your student debts.

On Friday, O'Donnell arrived at the Omni Shoreham like a conquering hero.

O'Donnell was as riveting as Palin only much easier to track and better syntax. In homage to the master's death panels, she took out after "unelected panels of bureaucrats" who decide who "is just too old, or too expensive to be worth saving." She added a riff about Big Brother. "They'll buy your teenage daughter an abortion but they won't let her buy a sugary soda in a school's vending machine." She got the audience chanting on cue: "Will they [the elites] attack us? Yes...  Is it worth it? "Yes,"  Is freedom worth it? "Yes," and so on. Think of Palin in her Valentino silk suit accepting the vice presidential nomination in St. Paul in 2008. A star was born. Political stars rise and fall more quickly than Lady Gaga overtakes Madonna. O'Donnell might want to rent All About Eve herself. It ends with the ingenue Harrington having achieved stardom returning home to find a young fan waiting for her. Before long, the clone of Eve is posing in front of the mirror in Eve's wrap clutching her award, with dreams of it all being hers some day.

Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg News. She was a columnist and deputy Washington bureau chief for Time magazine.