Sarah Palin Steals the Show

Romney won the straw poll at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, but the party showed it's still deeply dependent on the former Alaska governor.

There were two plays within the Republican play taking place on the banks of the Mississippi in New Orleans this past weekend.

There was the show-stopping one starring Sarah Palin, of such hurricane force it blew away serious presidential hopefuls who found they had compelling duties elsewhere: Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he would be busy welcoming returning veterans home, and Mitt Romney would be out selling his book and trying to come up with a tiny bit of difference between Romneycare and Obamacare.

The Steele drama is a reminder that Palin was smart to drop her day job. No more worries about getting nailed for blunders.

Their absence didn’t diminish the enthusiasm of the 3,000-plus crowd at the annual Southern Republican Leadership Conference, holder of the first cattle call of the 2012 election. When Palin agreed to come—and for free, interestingly, given the six-figure fee she got from the National Tea Party Convention—registrations surged, with no discernible dropoff when Romney and Pawlenty declined.

The other play was a tragi-comedy acted out largely off stage as Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele tries to keep his job. Since news leaked that the RNC had picked up a nearly $2,000 tab at an S&M club in West Hollywood, Steele is rarely released by his handlers into the general population for fear he’ll insult Rush Limbaugh again, voice doubts about the GOP regaining a congressional majority, or toy with buying a private jet even though the party’s coffers under his leadership have diminished by $12 million. If ever the ground were going to sink beneath him, it would be here, with about half of the RNC committeemen and women present, and with the North Carolina party chairman announcing his withdrawal of support.

Click Below to Watch Palin at SRLC

The Steele drama is one more reminder that Palin was smart to drop her day job. With no more worries about getting nailed for blunders or fighting ethics charges in the governor’s office, Palin is flitting about the country, repeating her bumper-sticker thoughts (“how’s that hopey, changey thing going for ya?”) as a de facto leader of the Tea Party movement. Thousands flocked to Minnesota last week to see Palin with her spiritual twin, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (she who flirts with birthers), and then to remote Searchlight, Nevada, home to Sen. Harry Reid. There she led with her screeching “It’s not a time to retreat, it’s time to reload” mantra—which she criticizes the media of "twisting" into encouraging the kind of violence that’s seen the recent FBI arrest of two people threatening to kill members of Congress.

Click Below to Watch Tina Fey as Palin on SNL

When she’s not on stage, Palin doesn’t play all that well with her fellow party bigwigs. When Newt Gingrich was giving his stemwinder against “the most radical president in American history” running “a secular socialist machine,” she was having a $63,500 charity dinner (proceeds going to a veteran’s group) won by an Alabama woman at Iron Chef John Besh’s restaurant.

A crowd began forming to hear Palin hours before she took the stage, hoping to avoid getting stuck in the overflow room. As she entered in a bright red jacket and a subtle tan (did she get to take that tanning bed from the governor’s mansion with her?), the place went wild, women pumping lipstick tubes in the air, cameras and books held high, as she entered the ballroom. She had the crowd at hello.

There’s a pattern to Palin’s speeches. There’s the pep rally beginning, a string of trademark lines (her “poor man’s teleprompter” had “Geaux Saints” and “Who Dat” written on it in an enlarged photo of her palm, go figure), and then a middle stretch where she touches on some obligatory substance. On Friday, it was a meandering treatise on oil and gas, which she punctured with sarcastic asides to keep the crowd from getting restive. “Let’s drill baby drill, not stall baby stall,” she chanted as she belittled the president for calling for limited offshore drilling. Al Gore gets a groaning laugh every time she mentions him (“this snake oil science stuff that is based on this global warming, Goregate stuff"). Palin is like the warrior who could live without a friend but not without an enemy. Without foils, she would have almost nothing to say.

Obama set up her most sneering remark by unnecessarily responding to Palin’s criticism of his nuclear arms-control agreement. He dismissed her as "not much of an expert," saying he preferred to listen to Defense Secretary Bob Gates. This was the pretext for her to mock him for "all the vast nuclear experience that he acquired as a community organizer." It brought the house down. The whole notion of a community organizer, the worthy career aimed at helping poor neighborhoods unite to pull themselves up, kills at conservative gatherings.

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As she left, it took seven burly Louisiana state troopers joining hands to get her to an elevator, as a surging crowd of mostly women lined up six deep to see her. I asked who was guarding Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose speech here redeemed his stilted performance in front of an antebellum staircase when he responded to the first joint presidential address to Congress. One said that they'd just wanted to help the lady out.

While Palin thrived, Steele survived. An on-again, off-again fundraiser (Palin removed her name from the invite when the bondage headlines appeared) drew fewer than a dozen people to Arnaud’s Friday evening. Steele’s speech, in which he glancingly admitted making mistakes, was delivered to a half-empty room on Saturday. In the hallway, no one rallied to his defense but no one had the stomach to embark on a cumbersome impeachment process. Barring Steele being found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy, to quote Louisiana's famous former governor, inertia and Affirmative Inaction, as Jon Stewart put it, may well keep him in place until the midterms.

Despite the acclaim, Palin did not win the Straw Poll, an honor that went to the absent Mitt Romney. Since Bill Frist (Bill who?) won last time, it doesn’t have much meaning. But it does make you wonder how the same crowd that could go gaga over Palin could vote for a stiff businessman, late of Massachusetts, who authored a health-care bill that is the evil twin of the Obama version so reviled that its mere mention repeatedly brought the crowd to its feet to denounce it.

That is just one more anomaly in the GOP. Palin, who is as likely to be running a scam as running for president, has Republicans in the inky plam of her hand. Even those who don’t think she should be president need her fundraising prowess and ability to draw a crowd. She holds the cup of tea from which they must drink.

For her part, she has to keep her hand in politics. If it hadn’t been for one amazing stunt—being chosen by a desperate candidate as his vice-presidential running mate—Palin wouldn’t be Palin, a bestselling author, TV personality with a show on Fox ( Real American Stories, which has managed to make her boring) and popular speaker commanding six figures. Without the prospect that she might run again, she’d be just another cable jockey subject to ratings and the prospect of being knocked off by the next Judge Judy to come along.

It’s not just the GOP that’s dependent on Palin. As the lights went off in New Orleans, they came up at Saturday Night Live as Tina Fey in a Palin updo and black leather previewed new programs on the Sarah Palin Network: the Tea Party Wheel of Fortune, Are You Smarter Than a Half-Term Governor, Dateline: To Catch a Levi Johnston, and Hey Journalist, I Gotcha!, which used re-edited news footage to show Palin outsmarting her tormenter, Katie Couric. Without Palin, what would happen to Saturday Night Live?

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