Veteran GOP fundraiser Fred Malek downplays his reported role as a key Palin adviser. But the confessed "friend" warns against underestimating her—and the Tea Partiers who love her. Plus, Matt Latimer on how Palin could win in 2012.
As the spotlight shines once again on Sarah Palin, thanks to her lively performance Saturday night at the National Tea Party Convention, its glare is catching those who advise the former vice-presidential candidate, too. It's a tight crew, and its outlines became clearer this week. Among the members, interestingly enough, for a candidate who tends to rail against Washington: Fred Malek, one of the capital's most venerable Republican wise men.
Will Palin run in 2012? “I think you have to take her at her word. She has said that she would be crazy to rule anything out,” Malek says.
There's longtime aide Meghan Stapleton, who acts as spokeswoman. Former McCain staffer Jason Recher works as operations chief. Palin's two main policy advisers are Randy Scheunemann and Kim Daniels, both vets from the McCain world as well. Palin's political action committee, Sarah PAC, is led by former RNC senior adviser Pam Pryor.
Palin also has a pair of Washington lawyers in her corner: Robert Barnett, a D.C. powerbroker who negotiated her book contract, and John Coale, a Democrat like Barnett who happens to be married to Palin's Fox News colleague Greta Van Susteren. But Malek is the dean; his place in the Washington establishment dates back to his days in the Nixon administration.
• Matt Latimer: How Palin Could Win • Tunku Varadarajan: The Right’s Top 25 Journalists Malek, who served as the national finance chair for John McCain's presidential campaign, is guarded about his role in the Palin circle. He's been called Palin's "leading defender" by The Washington Post, an " ally" by Congressional Quarterly. The New York Times describes him as a member of Palin's "kitchen cabinet." Palin herself, in her memoir, acknowledges Malek as someone "who deserve[s] credit for inspiring the fight to continue."
When asked this week if he's advising her now, Malek demurred. "I don't know if she would view me as her adviser," Malek said on the phone Wednesday from his home in snowy McLean, Virginia. "We are friends."
A year ago, Malek provided fodder for the D.C. gossip pages by hosting the former Alaska governor at his home for a dinner, reuniting Palin with her running mate Sen. John McCain for the first time since Election Night. On the campaign trail, Palin struck out against the "Washington elite." That night in February 2009, she charmed them.
"It was great to see her in deep conversations with people like Alan Greenspan, Madeleine Albright, Walter Isaacson, and Mitch McConnell," Malek wrote on his blog.
Today, as her appearance in Nashville at the Tea Party conference demonstrates, Palin sees her path to influence far outside of Washington and away from Malek's table.
"She doesn't come to Washington very often," he says. "I don't think she is trying to avoid it. I think she is more connected to the grassroots. Can she be effective without connecting more frequently with the Washington establishment? Look at what she has done. She is doing great without a whole lot of the likes of me," Malek says.
The likes of Malek, Washington's conservative capos, are facing a bit of a dilemma these days in figuring out how to chart a course for conservatism. Soon, the plans for the American Action Network, a center-right answer to the progressive Center for American Progress, will become clear. Right now, we know that Malek, along with former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and others, is hoping to create an organization that can develop conservative ideas and advocate for center-right candidates. A press conference is scheduled for Feb. 22.
"We have to embrace every political figure from the center to the right—from Olympia Snowe to Sarah Palin," Malek says. "All of them would be highly effective in promoting and communicating the message that we would hope to develop."
But Palin's efforts to tug the Republican Party rightward could leave little space for Snowe, the moderate senator from Maine, in the center. (Malek disagrees. "[Palin] does not demand ideological purity," he says and points to her support of comparatively moderate Rep. Mark Kirk's Senate campaign in Illinois and her championing of newly elected Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown.) Malek is stuck between a rock star and hard place, needing to support the person who most excites the base while hoping that the base's excitement doesn't lead to a purge of the few centrist Republicans, a group which counts Snowe and Brown as members. They are key to the GOP's effort to remain a national party.
In Nashville, at the Tea Party confab, Palin spoke from the same stage where former Rep. Tom Tancredo attacked Obama voters as illiterates and WorldNetDaily publisher Joseph Farah fanned the birther flames. Could such fellow travelers limit Palin's appeal?
"I think the Tea Party can be constructive," Malek says. "Any movement is going to have extremes. Because you endorse the movement doesn't mean you endorse the extremes."
Will Palin run in 2012?
"I think you have to take her at her word. She has said that she would be crazy to rule anything out," Malek says.
And she's comfortable keeping her circle of advisers, counselors and "friends" a small one.
"She doesn't need a very large group of people around her," Malek says. "I don't believe she feels the need for a lot of staff support. She is doing pretty well. Who is doing any better than she is?"
In the money race, that would be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. In the second half of 2009, Romney's political action committee raised $1.6 million to Palin's $1.4 million. Pawlenty raked in $1.3 million, but all of that in just three months. The difference could be an early sign of the seriousness with which Romney and Pawlenty are approaching a possible run in 2012 while Palin genuinely wavers. On the other hand, it may reflect the limits of keeping such a minimalist organization.
Either way, the White House still obviously has Palin on the brain. On Wednesday, press secretary Robert Gibbs spoofed Palin, who had talking points scrawled on her palm during her Tea Party address. Palin's notes: "energy," "tax cuts," and "life American spirits." Gibbs' cribbing: "milk," "bread," "eggs," "hope," and "change."
"The key spokesman of the president of the United States does not respond to someone who is not making a difference," Malek says. "They obviously think she is making a difference."
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.