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09.01.11

The Press Pants for Palin

The media play her game again as she heads for Iowa and New Hampshire. Howard Kurtz on why journalists keep falling for her presidential tease.

Here we go again, playing Sarah Palin’s game, chattering about whether her appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire this holiday weekend mean she is going to stop the endless flirtation and finally jump into the presidential race.

Not everyone is yammering about her latest move, of course. Most political professionals, noting that Palin has not lifted a finger toward building any kind of organization, have long since assumed she won’t be a candidate. The public appetite for every last Palin tidbit seems to have subsided with the passing of her Alaska reality-TV show and the rise of other Republicans—Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann—who are actually running.

That leaves Palin’s base: the media. Yep, the very same lamestream media that the former governor routinely denounces, but whose oxygen she needs to keep herself in the news. If she gets on a bus and visits New Hampshire on the day that Mitt Romney is announcing his candidacy, or swings by an Iowa fair just before the Ames Straw Poll, journalists are panting after her, as they undoubtedly will be at the Tea Party rallies this weekend.

“Decision Looming, Palin to Visit Early Vote States,” said The New York Times, though the article allowed for the possibility that Palin “simply craves the attention that accompanies her strategically planned appearances.”

Thus it was that Bill O’Reilly asked in his leadoff segment Wednesday whether his million-dollar-a-year Fox News colleague would join the 2012 campaign.

“I hope she doesn’t,” said political strategist Dick Morris, because “she’ll get clobbered.”

Indeed, Palin’s dismal numbers do not appear to dissuade journalists from touting her prospects, perhaps because she is such a juicy story that her chances of actually winning the GOP nomination become secondary. In a Huffington Post/Patch survey of influential Republicans in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, only 15 percent said they wanted to see Palin run. “I love and admire Sarah Palin,” one respondent said, “but I do not believe she is electable as president.”

The confusion over whether Palin would appear in Iowa on Saturday is typical of her seat-of-the-pants operation. First she was coming. Then, after the Tea Party for America organizers also invited Christine O’Donnell, the failed Senate candidate in Delaware who once dabbled in witchcraft, Palin’s participation was said to be “on hold.” Palin’s staff indicated that the group, which has spent $100,000 on the event in Indianola, was being “dishonest” about the program.

“I had to cancel Ms. O’Donnell,” Ken Crow, president of Tea Party for America, told NBC. In fact, O’Donnell was disinvited twice during the back and forth with Palin’s camp before the Alaskan agreed to attend.

Palin has also been feuding with Karl Rove, the Bush lieutenant who occupies another prominent perch at Fox. Rove is one of the few commentators who predicts that Palin is running.

That forecast prompted a sharp statement by her SarahPAC organization: “Any professional pundit claiming to have ‘inside information’ regarding Governor Palin’s personal decision is not only wrong but their comments are specifically intended to mislead the American public.”

Rove replied that Palin has an “enormous thin skin” and that “if she doesn’t want to be speculated about as a potential presidential candidate, there’s an easy way to end the speculation: Simply say, ‘I’m not running.’”

But that would spoil our fun—and, more importantly, Palin would instantly recede as a national figure. It’s in her interest to keep that door firmly ajar. “I believe that I can win a national election,” Palin told Newsweek in July, saying she wanted to see a larger GOP field and “there’s still time.”

Once Palin starts losing primaries, the magic will wear off and she will be viewed as just another struggling candidate.

But time is running short, and even Palin has said she must make a decision by the end of September out of fairness to potential supporters. So what’s her endgame?

“Palin’s grand strategy seems to be that there is no grand strategy—beyond, of course, messing with reporters,” says Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza.

Palin is a charismatic figure with a visceral appeal to many cultural conservatives. If she takes the plunge, most journalists will revel in writing how she faked them out—and give her an avalanche of coverage that will make Bachmann’s national debut feel like the mini-earthquake that was barely felt in Washington.

But Palin is savvy enough to know what will likely happen if she gives up her Fox News perch and lucrative book royalties and lecture fees. She will undergo a media inquisition that will far exceed the battering of her VP bid, and her high negatives will make it exceedingly hard to overtake the likes of Perry and Romney. She won’t be able to brush off hostile stories with a Facebook posting or Sean Hannity chat. Once Palin starts losing primaries, the magic will wear off and she will be viewed as just another struggling candidate.

No wonder she wants to put off the day of reckoning. It’s much more fun to keep the media off-balance and the rest of the world guessing.