09.20.10

Bristol: A Dancing Diva?

Bristol’s Dancing With the Stars debut showed the Palins play the fame game like no political family ever has. Do their reality-TV forays hurt Sarah’s chances for a presidential run?

Despite TMZ and the tabloid world reporting for days that Sarah Palin was going to cheer for her daughter in Los Angeles during the live taping of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, she tweeted Monday evening that she was, in fact, having a viewing party at home in her living room. The announcement disappointed Palin observers, fans, and foes who track her every move.

Introduced as a “teen activist,” Bristol danced the cha-cha dressed like her mom in a bedazzled power suit, her hair in that familiar chignon, and sporting the always-important flag pin before tearing off the jacket to reveal a red, fringed mini dress beneath. The song she danced to was “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” which she explained was a reference to her relationship with on again/off again fiancé, Levi Johnston: “Mama told me not do it, but I did it anyways. I’ve always listened to my mom growing up, but there’s been times I haven’t, so this song is a play off of that.”

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As far as what she wanted to accomplish, Bristol said, "If I can do half of what Mark [Ballas] has taught me, bring some sexy to the cha-cha, and don't embarrass my mom I'll be thrilled.”

Why would she embarrass her mom, though? Reality television has become a family affair, with Sarah Palin launching her upcoming TLC reality show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, in November. Assuming Bristol lasts another week, the drumbeat will begin anew for Sarah to appear in the audience—all part of the decidedly unusual (for a politician) path Sarah Palin has taken.

None of the family’s unique choices—reality TV over Sunday talk shows, Twitter and Facebook over the mainstream media, Bristol’s Us Weekly cover stories (for which she and Johnston were reportedly paid $100,000), or, most unique of all, Sarah Palin resigning the governorship—have slowed Palin for what looks like a presidential run in 2012.

As a mark of her continued influence, Palin has a formidable endorsement record. Out of 43 endorsements, she has 25 wins, 11 losses, and seven with no primary, and in her fiery speech last Friday at a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party she clearly set herself up as the leader of the Tea Party movement.

But there are signs that she may be seen as more of a wildly popular Republican celebrity than presidential material.

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At the Family Research Council’s Value Voters Summit, an annual gathering of conservative Republicans in Washington, D.C., their presidential straw poll was hotly anticipated to see who would be their 2012 choice to take on President Obama. Palin came in a surprising fifth and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins shed some light on what many conservatives really think of her.

"I think she is a great spokesman," Perkins said to reporters at the summit. "I mean, I think that she challenges the status quo. She says what a lot of people think. But, you know, a lot of people sometimes realize we shouldn't say everything we think. Maybe it is that she is more of a cheerleader and one who rallies conservatives together as opposed to being their top choice for president."

“The truth is she is a star,” said Fred Barnes of Sarah Palin.

Fred Barnes, who has written favorably of Palin in The Weekly Standard and is credited as one half of the team who “discovered” her ( along with his colleague Bill Kristol), said to The Daily Beast that Palin’s foray into reality television “is not going to hurt her.”

“She would probably help herself more if she were doing the dancing more than her daughter,” Barnes said. “The truth is she is a star. She is a figure that excites at least conservatives or a lot of conservatives and that’s her strength.”

But Barnes said her weakness is that “she’s not somebody who makes pronouncements on policy that everybody listens to and pays attention to.”

Republican strategist Rich Galen agreed that it won’t hurt her (unlike Barnes he does not think she should have danced instead of her daughter), but that’s because he thinks she has no chance of being the Republican presidential nominee in 2012.

“I don’t know if she has any credibility as a presidential contender to start with so the answer to that there is no downside risk,” Galen said.

Of course, Palin’s supporters disagree. She has an army, especially online, who back her in an almost unconditional manner. SarahPAC staffer Rebecca Mansour described the level of devotion and emotions Palin stirs in people, “I‘ve never quite seen a politician that people feel an affection for as if she were a member of their family. I know that she inspires this kind of affection. There are certain people or politicians who have that ability. She inspires deep emotions in some people, and it can be great love and fondness or really intense hatred and loathing.”

One thing is clear that with reality shows, speeches, or even her tweets, she garners by far the most media attention out of all the potential 2012 candidates, “Whenever Sarah Palin is doing anything, [the press] are going to show up. She attracts attention like no other politician in the Republican Party and that doesn’t mean she is the most popular, but she does attract the most media attention,” Barnes said.

R.J. Cutler, a producer of the documentary The War Room about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, pointed out in an interview that “personal narrative is a very important part of a political profile.” From candidates’ memoirs to sitting on Oprah’s couch, reality television is just a new outlet for that personal narrative. “It’s hard in a mass culture democracy to argue that these are new developments. They are just going to take the form of the moment and God knows that reality TV is certainly one of the forms of the moment.”

For Palin’s upcoming showcase, there has been much secrecy around the taping of Sarah Palin’s Alaska. But in my interview with Palin’s father, Chuck Heath, he let a few details out about the eight-part series. According to Heath, viewers can look forward to caribou hunting; a visit to the North Slope; gold mining in Nome, a small village in the Alaskan bush; and dog mushing with Iditarod champion and Palin friend (who also accompanied the Palins on the 2008 trail) Martin Buser.

Heath said he was surprised he got along so well with the “city people,” but that he loved the 45-person crew.

“I’ve had a good time with them, just wonderful people all of them,” Heath said. “They are from New York and Chicago and L.A., all city people. None of them hunt and fish. [I thought] we are not going to have anything in common, but everything turned out beautifully.”

On Monday night, Bristol cha cha-ed her way into a pretty good score from the judges. Her moves, coupled with supporters by the phones ready to vote for another Palin, means that there is a good chance that she may be around for awhile, leaving plenty of episodes for her Mama Grizzly to root for her in person. Until then, Palin sent one last tweet, along with a photo: “Over-the-moon excited and happy for Bristol! Cheering her on @ DWTS party in the Palin living room.”

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Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.