WOODBURY, N.Y. – After weeks in the shadows with only a flicker of Facebook postings, Sarah Palin emerged Thursday for a lucrative and surprisingly revealing question-and-answer session before the Long Island Association
, a business group used to hosting former presidents. During an hour in which she was quizzed in a more probing fashion than is often the norm on Fox News, Palin proved that she can create more headlines from a single luncheon than are possible from six months on the Mitt Romney beat.
Palin tantalized her audience (who paid $300 and up for the privilege, with a backstage photo-op starting at $9,500
) by offering her latest proclamation of uncertainty about seeking the presidency: "I'm still thinking about it. Certainly in my mind, I could not make a decision yet." She turned a warning about inflationary pressures in the economy -- including rising milk prices -- into a bizarre swipe at the first lady: "It's no wonder Michelle Obama is telling everybody you need to breast-feed your babies."
, a liberal group waging daily war against Fox News, unearthed a proclamation that Palin issued as Alaska governor hailing October 2007 as "Breastfeeding Awareness Month." As with all things Palin, a throwaway line immediately becomes the stuff of lasting controversy).
Trying to divine Palin's political intentions will continue as an anyone-can-play parlor game right up until the moment that she begins to show up to shake hands in places like Ottumwa, Iowa, or she reveals that instead of running for president she will star in "Sarah: The Movie." Palin's recent decision to hire veteran Republican operative Michael Glassner
as her chief of staff was interpreted as a nod towards a presidential candidacy. But in response to a specific question Thursday, Palin insisted, "I hired a chief of staff because, to tell you the truth, Todd is kind of getting tired of doing it all for me."
Nothing is ever certain on the way to an announcement of a presidential candidacy as New York Gov. Mario Cuomo proved in late 1991 when he suddenly bowed out instead of boarding the plane waiting to fly him to New Hampshire to file the ballot papers to enter the opening-gun primary. The psychology of whether to run and gamble it all in the cauldron of ambition (Barack Obama) or to play it safe (as such winter-book Democratic contenders as Evan Bayh and Mark Warner did in abandoning their 2008 explorations) is at the mysterious heart of presidential politics.
What I heard from Palin at Thursday's luncheon were the sighs of reluctance. Two sighs, in fact, as audible as the intakes of breath that punctuated Al Gore's 2000 debate performances. It is, of course, risky to use a bridge of sighs to buttress political predictions. Still, it seemed telling that Palin twice had this involuntary reaction when she was asked about different pitfalls to a presidential candidacy.
The first sigh came when Palin's questioner -- attorney Kevin Law, the president of the Long Island Association -- asked why she was so reluctant to do public events like this question-and-answer session. Moments later, Palin launched into a rambling account of how she takes the measure of reporters (like ABC's Robin Roberts) by how they react when she demands that they interview her at her remote Alaska cabin "and hop on the snow machine with us."
Palin made this ordeal seem like the ultimate Outward Bound challenge for journalists: "We bring reporters up here and we really learn what they're made of. . . . If they put up with adverse conditions, then they're worthy of an interview, so let's talk." Of course, it is all a ridiculous gimmick, since most political reporters (even someone like me, who limits adventure travel to crossing New York City streets against the light) would sign up for snowmobile lessons and cold-weather training if the prize were an actual interview with Palin.
But what Palin's initial sigh seemed to indicate was her awareness that she cannot run for president from her Alaska TV studio augmented by her mastery of Facebook and Twitter. "Nothing is more effective," she conceded, "than being there with the people in the diners, shaking hands and hearing what they want to share with you." For all her talk about being "unconventional" and "going rogue," Palin apparently realizes that there is no way to surmount the time-consuming campaign rituals of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.
Even more intriguing was Palin's acknowledgement of "Yeah" with another sigh when Law asked about her poll numbers -- particularly a mid-January Gallup Poll
that found that 53 percent Americans hold an unfavorable opinion of her. In a burst of candor, Palin admitted, "In a lot of those polls, I get my butt kicked. I don't do well in a lot of those polls." Even as she partially blamed the Gallup numbers on critical press stories
following the Tucson shootings, Palin also added, "I'm not blaming that incident for my poor poll numbers. They are what they are."
Ever since her disastrous 2008 interview with Katie Couric, Palin has fed off her ideological war with the "lame-stream media," a trademark phrase that she never used Thursday. Even as Palin made light of her battles with reporters ("I have to throw in criticism about the press because that's what I do," she joked early in the Q-and-A), she appears to understand the political consequences of this war of words with the journalists who write them. As Palin asked rhetorically, "How does the public know me, though, but through the press? When the press reports things that have really, really misrepresented my record . . . then certainly the perception is out there that that person is less than qualified."
Maybe I am over-interpreting fragments. But it sounded to me as if Palin cannot figure out how she can win a Republican nomination with her poll numbers (she boasts 16.5 percent support for the GOP nomination in the rolling averages compiled by Real Clear Politics
), the continuing scorn of the press pack, and her reluctance to spend most of the next year in Holiday Inns.
After the luncheon, I asked Kevin Law, who freely admits that he is a registered Democrat, if he had any instinct about Palin's intentions after watching her body language up close during his hour-long interrogation. "In my gut," he said, "I would guess that she is not running." Acknowledging the perils of prediction -- especially about Sarah Palin -- that is my instinct as well.
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