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Palin’s Bus Tour Draws Media Buzz, But ‘So Far it’s Not a Campaign’

June 1, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
For the past four days, much media attention has focused on 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's bus tour. Gwen Ifill talks to The Washington Post's Dan Balz about whether the former Alaska governor appears headed toward a run for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.

GWEN IFILL: Next, a look at the political phenomenon that is Sarah Palin.

Officially, there are now four declared candidates seeking the Republican nomination in 2012: a former Minnesota governor, a former House speaker, the former CEO of a pizza franchise, and a current Texas congressman. And tomorrow, another former governor, Mitt Romney, will make it five, when he formally kicks off his own campaign in New Hampshire.

But, for the past four days, all the oxygen in the race has been consumed by someone whose political plans are emphatically unclear: Sarah Palin. The frenzy surrounding the 2008 vice presidential nominee began Sunday, with the launch of her “One Nation” bus tour in Washington.

With no published itinerary, reporters have taken to chasing Palin at every stop, from George Washington’s Virginia home, Mount Vernon, to Fort McHenry in Baltimore, to Gettysburg, and then to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell.

WOMAN: We love you, Sarah!

GWEN IFILL: More fuel was added to the publicity fire last night, when Palin joined Donald Trump for a pizza dinner before the cameras at a Times Square restaurant.

Today, it was on to Ellis Island and a visit to the Statue of Liberty. Along the way, Palin has fielded repeated questions about her political plans, insisting each time that her tour is, for now, just a tour.

SARAH PALIN, (R) former Alaska governor: I don’t know if I’m going to be a candidate for anything in the future. I’m just on a mission right now to bring some good attention to the historical sites that I wish every American would be able to get out and see and appreciate.

This isn’t a campaign bus. This is a bus to be able to express to America how much we appreciate our foundation, and to invite more people to be interested in all that is good about America.

It indicates a desire of our part to get across America and remind others about our foundation, how important it is to respect and protect our Constitution.

GWEN IFILL: Those swept up in the media swarm around Palin this week had mixed reactions.

MAN: We got surprised with seeing Sarah Palin, which was a highlight of our trip this weekend.

MAN: I’m just not a fan of hers. There’s no big game down here. She could have caught a Kodiak bear out there on the harbor, for all I care.

GWEN IFILL: But if Palin were to launch a presidential bid, she said it would have a different feel than other campaigns.

SARAH PALIN: Oh, it would definitely be unconventional and nontraditional, yes, knowing — knowing us.

GWEN IFILL: Palin’s bus tour, part summer family vacation, part political tease, is just the latest example of that unconventional style, which usually lives online.

Granting formal interviews only to FOX News, where she is under contract, Palin often engages in public debate through social media outlets, like Facebook and Twitter. That unpredictable approach has made her a Tea Party favorite, as well as a Republican wild card.

With or without Palin in the race, there are already others hoping to woo those same voters, including Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

Joining us from New Hampshire is Dan Balz, a national political correspondent for The Washington Post.

Dan, this isn’t your mother’s campaign, is it, if this is indeed a campaign?


DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: Well, I think the key question, Gwen, is, is this a campaign or is it not a campaign?

So far, it is not a campaign. And I don’t know that anybody other than Sarah Palin and her husband, Todd Palin, really know whether it’s going to become a campaign. But it is an unconventional, unorthodox approach even to testing the waters, if you could call it that.

GWEN IFILL: You’re in New Hampshire, and she is rumored to be headed there. Are New Hampshire or Iowa political operatives looking at this and saying, yes, she’s coming?

DAN BALZ: No, I think, at this point, everybody is a little bit bemused, a little bit confused, and wondering and waiting to see whether she does take the next step.

She has not been in Iowa or New Hampshire this year, unlike anybody else who’s got a serious thought of running for president. So, when she arrives here, presumably by the end of the week, this will be her first trip here. And I think that people will be paying attention.

But, as we have seen on this trip, because she’s not letting people know where she is going to be, she’s not doing traditional kinds of events that a candidate would do that draw a crowd, her interaction with people is sometimes more happenstance, and a lot of it is now through social networking and the kind of interaction that she’s getting that way.

GWEN IFILL: Dan, I don’t want to date you, but you have been doing this for a little bit. Have you ever seen anything quite this way before?

DAN BALZ: No, we have not seen anything like this before. And I think that that’s been the case with Gov. Palin since she came on the national political scene as the vice presidential nominee in 2008.

She is a different kind of candidate, and she connects with people in a different kind of way. And I think that she believes in her heart that, if she were to run, she could run, as she put it, an unconventional campaign and that it might be successful.

Nobody’s ever successfully done the kind of thing that she seems to want to try to do if she becomes a candidate, but there is a first time for everything.

GWEN IFILL: Is all the attention she’s getting, sucking the air out of the room, causing chagrin for announced candidates? Is it a function of media, disinterest with the rest of the field, or with public lack of enthusiasm for the rest of the field?

DAN BALZ: I think it’s a little bit of all of those, Gwen.

I mean, I don’t think the other candidates are sitting around saying, well, how do we plot our strategy with the possibility that Sarah Palin might become a candidate at some point later this year?

If you’re serious about trying to win the Republican nomination, you know you have to be doing things now. You have to be raising money. You have to be building an organization. And, in fact, you have to be learning to talk to voters in a compelling way.

But there’s no question that Sarah Palin takes up a lot of space in part because there is lack of enthusiasm with the rest of the field. We have seen that in polling. We have seen that when we have talked to voters along the trail this year. So, it’s a combination of both.

But if you are Mitt Romney, who announces here tomorrow, you have got to do what you have got to do, and you have got to run the campaign that you think is the best campaign you can run to try to win the nomination.

GWEN IFILL: Sarah Palin’s a former state governor. She’s a former party nominee for the vice presidential nomination just a few years ago. Can she successfully craft herself as an outsider?

DAN BALZ: Well, I think Sarah Palin has always tried to be an outsider.

And even though she was the Republican nominee for vice president, I think, given her combative relationship with the media, and the fact that she has identified herself with sort of the insurgent part of the Republican Party, that, if she were to get in, she would be the insurgent in the race, she would be the outsider challenging the Republican establishment, to the extent that that exists at this point.

GWEN IFILL: A combative relationship, but one that people cannot look away, apparently.

DAN BALZ: Well, no, that’s exactly right.

I mean, I think, whether people like Sarah Palin or don’t like Sarah Palin, many people find her an intriguing personality, a political celebrity like they have not seen. And, so, she does draw attention, and particularly media attention in this kind of cable, Twitter, Facebook environment. She’s sort of ready-made for that environment. And the question is can she translate that into a real campaign?

GWEN IFILL: Well, maybe she’s headed your way up there in New Hampshire, Dan.

Thanks a lot for joining us.

DAN BALZ: Thank you, Gwen.