WASHINGTON--What is Sarah Palin up to?
The former Alaska governor told Fox News Wednesday night she is “still thinking about” running for president in 2012, and she feels “tempted” to do so because she questions the other potential Republican candidates' motives.
“I’m still wondering who the heck is going to be out there with a servant’s heart willing to serve the American people for the right reason, not for ego, not for special interests, not with obsessive partisanship,” Palin, a paid Fox contributor, told the network's Greta Van Susteren in a 25-minute interview.
This despite the fact that she is apparently doing nothing to build a campaign organization or cultivate contacts in key early primary states. In fact, her staff is shrinking. She recently parted ways with two of her most experienced political operatives, Jason Recher and Doug McMarlin, both veterans of the Bush administration.
Leaving Recher and McMarlin behind was not sudden or acrimonious, sources said, adding to the sense Palin is downsizing at the same time other potential candidates are staffing up. She has, however, hired a new chief of staff, veteran operative Michael Glassner.
Palin’s decision to cast herself and her family in a Discovery Channel reality TV series that aired last fall for eight episodes, and to a small extent her daughter Bristol’s appearance on “Dancing With the Stars,” has caused many conservatives who like Palin to take her less seriously.
Some of the right's most respected pundits, such as Charles Krauthammer and George Will, have criticized her again recently, saying a presidential candidacy could be "disastrous." Meanwhile, conservative talk radio hosts such as Mark Levin have fiercely defended her.
Even founder of the conservative "Weekly Standard" magazine Bill Kristol, who helped push Palin into the spotlight in 2007, said this week he does not think she should be the GOP standard-bearer.
"She has a very shrewd judgment about politics and policy and very good instincts -- but she hasn't done what Reagan ... did, which is really educate himself over a number of years," Kristol said. “I think she's unlikely to be the Republican nominee, and to be honest I think she probably shouldn't be the Republican nominee for president.”
Conservatives4Palin.com, a website devoted to advocating on behalf of the former governor, attacked Kristol for his comments. And Palin herself has never shown much deference to what “Washington elites” think.
Polling numbers indicate Palin would be a force in a GOP primary. She is one of the top three or four names in most surveys of potential Republican candidates. But her negative numbers are so high, often around 60 percent, that it would likely be extremely difficult for her to win a general election against President Obama.
Book sales bear a mixed message: Though her star has waned a good deal over the past year, she still remains a powerful draw for many. Palin’s second book, “America by Heart” sold 70 percent fewer copies than her first, “Going Rogue,” which racked up a blockbuster 2.7 million purchases.
But at almost 800,000 copies, "America by Heart" still nabbed the title of third best-selling hardcover book in 2010.
All factors together, it would seem Palin should not, and will not, run. The most persuasive reason not to join the race is the effect it would have on her family. If she does not run, she can continue to make money on books and speeches and avoid the intense level of criticism and demands that come with a campaign.
"She is right now enjoying the best gig and would be ill-advised to give it up and run for office," Colin Hannah, president of Let Freedom Ring, a conservative nonprofit that appeals to and advocates for many of the values voters from middle America who like Palin.
In that context, Palin’s comments to Van Susteren about the media can be read one of two ways.
“I'm through whining about a liberal press that holds particularly conservative women to a different standard, because it doesn't do any good to whine about it,” she said. "Nobody ever promised life was going to be fair. And politics really isn't fair, the scrutiny, the double standards, and all that.”
Coming from a woman who coined the term “lamestream media,” Palin’s remarks reflect a shift. It could be the outlook of someone who has mentally decided she is not going to run the gauntlet again. It may also be an attempt to brace herself for another barrage.
At the end of the day, those who have worked with Palin have consistently said when understanding her thought process, only two principles apply. The first is that only she and her husband Todd know what she is thinking. The second is that rules of logic, convention and what a "normal" political figure would do don’t apply.
So when it comes to Palin, anything can happen.
She kept a somewhat lower profile after her response to critics who implied she was to blame for the January shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson did not go over well. But in the past week, she's returned to the spotlight in a big way.
She delivered a speech in India last Saturday. She and Todd toured Jerusalem and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday. On Wednesday night, she spoke to roughly a thousand supporters in Naples, Florida.
And Palin’s decision to sit for an extended interview with Van Susteren after her appearance in Florida, during which she talked at length about U.S. involvement in Libya and policy toward Israel, was unusual. She did not show herself much improved in waxing eloquent on foreign policy, saying the U.S. stance on Libya should be “as long as we are in it, we better be in it to win it, and if there [is] doubt, get out."
It's risky to string supporters and the press along for too long, some conservatives said. If her fans conclude she is dangling the possibility of a run simply to sell more books or keep her name in the news, they explained, it would cause them to sour on her.
One senior conservative figure contrasted Palin with Rep. Mike Pence, the Indiana Republican who only briefly let his name float as a possible 2012 contender before declaring he intended to run for governor of his home state instead. Palin, meanwhile, has been the subject of speculation almost continuously since the 2008 campaign concluded.
Part of that is because her intense star wattage draws a unique level of attention. But the conservative organizer, who did not want to be identified, said if Palin does not intend to run for president, she needs an “exit plan” to gracefully leave the stage while remaining politically relevant, possibly through a nonprofit organization similar to Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions group.
Fred Barnes, executive editor of the "Weekly Standard", said he thought Palin “and a number of others could wait until the fall” to announce.
“I don’t think there’s any real pressure on Palin or anyone else who’s known,” Barnes said in an interview. “If [Palin] has a problem, it’s making the case that she is the most conservative Republican who can defeat Obama in November 2012.”
He continued, “That’s the old William Buckley angle: a notion for judging candidates. If you’re a conservative, you’d like the most conservative candidate who can win."
Aides to Palin did not respond to requests for comment.