Last we checked on Sarah Palin -- two minutes ago -- she had left behind a political dust storm and a few snakes rattling in the West over the weekend. Strewn all around the crossroads of cowboy America were vintage Palinisms -- "Don't retreat, just reload" -- rabble-rousing one-liners and fervent chants of "Run, Sarah, run!"
One glance at the cable news streaming her appearances live and you had to know that she'd probably never need Peggy Lee's "Fever" to heat up the crowds. There was Sarah, lighting up center stage, wearing an all-black, zipped-up leather biker jacket, thigh-hugging skirt and platform six-inch spikes. Tabloids had their pinup girl, and women over 45 (with five children!) could only gape and gasp. How can she look like THAT?!
She cut a wide trail across the windblown Southwest, from Arizona to Nevada, where she traveled to buck up the John McCain campaign
in Arizona and to try to finish off Sen. Harry Reid's sagging fortunes in Nevada
. Just as she's been doing for months, without the benefit of party title or party coffers, she was building up the business of the folks she likes to call "common-sense conservatives," Tea Partiers, independents, Reagan Dems, like those whooping crowds at the Pima County Fairgrounds near Tucson on Friday and in the desert campground in Starlight, Nev., on Saturday.
Just as her mastery of the stage is getting stronger, her command of the media is growing. Not too long ago, she had been tossed into the remainder bin of politics, a casualty of her own ignorance and the media's knee-jerk reaction to her right-wing philosophy. But the tenor and tone of some of the major media have noticeably changed in just the seven-or-so weeks since Nashville, Palin's last major appearance before her reunion with McCain in Arizona.
High-powered journalists in the broadcast, cable, online and print media followed in her wake in Tucson, Phoenix and Starlight. One, Mark Halperin, the co-author of the nonfiction bestseller on the 2008 campaign "Game Change," was on the ground, presumably gathering behind-the-scenes material for his next book with John Heilemann. That book, for which the pair reportedly received an advance of $5 million, will focus on the 2012 presidential campaign. MSNBC's chief Washington Bureau correspondent Norah O'Donnell was there, too, with a first-hand report that lacked the snarky tilt of her previous commentary on Palin. The New York Times had two top political reporters on Palin's trail, one in Nevada
, the other in Arizona
; and the Washington Post's veteran political columnist Dan Balz
, writing on Sunday about Palin's appearance at the McCain rally, declared, "The understudy is now the star."
Are they sensing the rise of the inevitable 2012 Republican presidential candidate?
Are we seeing a shift in Palin herself? Is she beginning to move toward the conservative mainstream? Or are we simply getting used to her brand of politicking? She seems almost moderate when compared to hotheads on her far right, like J.D. Hayworth, the Tea Party activist who is running against McCain, or the blathering right-wing gurus like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. At times she seems downright sensible (within the conservative construct), which is what she seemed in going to McCain's rescue and avoiding far-out right-wing know-nothings like the woman who ran as a third candidate in the Texas GOP primary against Gov. Rick Perry (Perry won, with Palin's showy support).
How many others, like McCain, will come calling on her? Palin has released her list of 20 Democratic seats that are top targets for her grassroots followers to defeat. But who has heard of Mitt Romney's list, or Tim Pawlenty's, or who else is there in the GOP weeds? Do they have any lists? Do they have what it takes to stop her? She's got everyone's eyes on her and no one is really paying much mind to those other guys. You can be sure that none of that glam attention she gets is lost on the GOP establishment, which seems to fear her more than the Democrats do.
She's the one who can draw and turn on the crowds and the one who has no fear of the twitchy liberal media and no fear of making those crazy "I can see Russia from here" comments that leave most of us perplexed, if not laughing. She's got no fear of ridicule, or none that she would admit to, and that has to help any politician. Finally, the truth is, none of those other guys have her charisma -- whatever there is about her that fascinates even those who can't stand her or what she stands for.
She brought all of that with her to Arizona and Nevada. Firing up the faithful was her mission on a week when President Obama and the Democrats had won a historic vote that revived the Democrats' and the president's fortunes and was expected to cool off the simmering Tea Party movement. Reading notes off the palm of her hand --a media criticism that she has turned into a joke -- she exhorted the crowd to not lose its focus on the prize: winning seats in the midterm elections in November.
"Don't retreat, just reload,"
she said in a familiar refrain that has prompted critics to accuse her of stoking anger and violence in the wake of the health care vote. But Palin, aware of the criticism, retorted: "We know violence isn't the answer. When we take up our arms, we do it with our votes." The crowd hooted and hollered.
With the hoopla that followed every phrase she made, she hardly needed to exert herself to sell the message. It was there, at center stage: herself.