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With 2012 Plans in Limbo, Palin Steps Into Kingmaker Role

September 20, 2010 at 6:22 PM EDT
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Judy Woodruff looks at the political power of Sarah Palin, her political endorsements and her use of social media with reporters Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times and Libby Casey of the Alaska Public Radio Network.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now to politics. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has been rallying her supporters to help Republican candidates across the country this year. Judy Woodruff checks in on Palin’s latest political moves and what they may tell us about her future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While a debate simmers on over whether Sarah Palin’s presence in this year’s Republican primaries have helped or hurt the party, there can be no doubt she has played a pivotal role in shaping the 2010 GOP field.

Palin’s clout was on display just last week, as two of her preferred U.S. Senate choices, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, both won their primary contests. O’Donnell’s victory came at the expense of veteran Congressman Mike Castle, who had been heavily favored by the party establishment.

Palin’s support for O’Donnell included recording a robo phone call to help get out the vote.

SARAH PALIN (R), Former Alaska Governor: Hi. This Governor Sarah Palin. Vote for Christine O’Donnell for U.S. Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Palin has also made effective use of social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, to announce endorsements or comment on current events. And Palin released an Internet video earlier this summer titled “Mama Grizzlies,” her term for conservative women candidates she’s endorsed this year.

SARAH PALIN: Here in Alaska, I always think of the mama grizzly bears that rise up on their hind legs when somebody’s coming to attack their cubs, to do something adverse toward their cubs. If you thought pit bulls were tough, well, you don’t want to mess with the mama grizzlies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: According to an analysis by The Washington Post, Palin has endorsed 43 candidates in primaries this year, the breakdown, 25 win, 11 losses, and seven races where there was no primary. Palin’s efforts to aid candidates in 2010 has fueled speculation she might be eying a bid for president in 2012.

That idea gained steam over the weekend, after Palin spoke Friday at a closely watched Republican Party fund-raiser in Iowa, a key early caucus state. Mindful of the buzz around her, Palin quipped that, earlier in the day, her husband, Todd, had advised her not to go for a run outside.

SARAH PALIN: And I said, “Why would I want to stay indoors?”

Todd says, “Because I guarantee you, if anybody spots you in the tennis shoes, the headline is going to be, ‘Vanity Fair,’ they’re going to say, ‘Palin in Iowa decides to run.’”

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: And while that headline might not be far off, Palin admits, for now, her focus is on electing strong conservative leaders this November.

For more on Sarah Palin’s political power, we are joined by Libby Casey — she’s Washington correspondent for Alaska Public Radio Network — and Jeff Zeleny, national political correspondent for The New York Times.

Thank you both for being here. Jeff Zeleny, I’m going to start with you. How would — you have been watching these campaigns. How would you describe the effect that Sarah Palin has had on the 2010 races so far?

JEFF ZELENY, The New York Times: Well, this is — it is a pretty big effect. I mean, for the first time really in her political career, she is acting on her own. She is not John McCain’s sidekick. She is the front — she is like leading the charge in endorsing some of these candidates and really bringing them to the fore.

We had never heard of Nikki Haley before. She, of course, is the Republican nominee for governor in South Carolina. Sarah Palin put her on the map. So, really across the country, there are candidates who now owe their political careers and futures to her.

She’s lost several races — or her, the people who she has endorsed have lost some races. But, more than that, recently, she’s won a lot of them. And she really has taken on the Republican establishment in Washington. The leaders of the party committees in several cases endorsed, you know, an insurgent candidate, if you will. And she emerges out of this as something of a kingmaker.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Libby Casey, how does she decide who she is going to endorse?

LIBBY CASEY, Alaska Public Radio Network: We all sort of tried to read the tea leaves to figure out how Sarah Palin makes these decisions and then the timing of the decisions, as well as some the more unusual, unorthodox ways that she makes the announcements.

For example, with Terry Branstad, who is running for governor in Iowa, which is more of a safe pick — it’s always good to have the future governor of Iowa in your camp if you have any presidential aspirations — but there’s sort of the quirky story about how she called the campaign office, couldn’t get him on the phone.

He ended up finding out from an aide who saw her endorsement on Facebook. So, it’s not always an orthodox method. And then her picks are kind of across-the-board, very many Tea Party candidates, of course. But there have been other…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But not all Tea Party.

LIBBY CASEY: Absolutely, John McCain, a loyalty pick. There are others. I mentioned Terry Branstad in Iowa, not a Tea Party guy. And the Tea Party actually has come out, Tea Party sort of supporters — there is, you know, no official Tea Party mantle — but those who are part of the groups have come out on her Facebook page and been upset at some of her endorsements.

But it adds to her maverick tendency, right? She’s not following a script. And I think she likes the fact that she can mix things up and surprise us. When she makes a pick that is not a Tea Party, it surprises the media just as much, and we pay equal attention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why are we paying attention, Jeff? I mean, we are all trying to get at this — this mysterious factor. What is the appeal here? What is it about Sarah Palin?

JEFF ZELENY: It is a great question. And, really, everything she does gets attention now. She’s the only political figure who I can think of, she sends out a tweet, a Facebook message, and it gets broadcast or reported. There is no one else who has that type of ability.

So, I think the underlying thing is here, we’re all waiting to see what her next act is going to be. There are very few people who have emerged in such quick fashion and who have galvanized. Even though her audience is not widespread, she has a really enthusiastic — sort of a medium-sized audience, if you will.

And we are waiting to see what she is going to do. If, tomorrow, she was going to announce, look, I’m not going run for president in 2012, I’m going to, you know, be active in politics and write another book, I’m not sure we would follow her quite as much. But that is what this is all building to.

Is Sarah Palin going to sort of collide with the Republican establishment, and — you know, and who is going to win in that? So, I think everything she does, we are trying to see how it fits into the larger picture of, is she or is she not going to run for president?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to ask about that collision with the Republican establishment. But, Libby, as somebody who has watched her, what, since she ran for governor, how do you describe her appeal? What is it about her that has everybody in the media hanging on every tweet?

LIBBY CASEY: She has a lot of star power. And we can’t dismiss that. We joke about the fact that Bristol Palin is going to be on “Dancing With the Stars” tonight. Sarah Palin is likely to be in the audience. That is what has been reported.

And that may seem like a trivial matter, but it going to be in every American home across the country. And, so, she has been able to cross over the serious political discussion, but also appeal to people on a very human level.

I went to Glenn Beck’s recent rally in Washington to cover that, and I talked to a lot of people there who said they just like the fact that they feel like she’s a normal person. She has a complicated family dynamic. She doesn’t always say the right thing. The media sort of scoffs when she mixes up repudiate and refute on Twitter. And the blogosphere goes wild about that.

And so I think they identify with her. But she also has come at a perfect time. I mean, her sort of no-holds-barred, mama grizzly, my way or the highway, it resonated in Alaska when she ran for governor in a way that was a little bit surprising. But it is just perfect timing here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Jeff, as you suggested a minute ago, not everybody is thrilled with what she is doing. What about the Republican establishment? Are they truly waiting for her to make a decision?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, in many respects, what her decision does will impact what happens with the rest of the field. I mean, if she holds off and doesn’t make a decision for several months, how is that going to impact who gets in and who is not getting in? Really, we’re just not that far away from it.

Some seven weeks after the — immediately after the midterm elections, some of these candidates, potential candidates, will begin making up their mind. If she holds off, it changes the calculation for everyone. But in Iowa on Friday night, I was watching the audience as much as I was watching her.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were there?

JEFF ZELENY: I was there watching her speak.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

JEFF ZELENY: Her speech was generally the same one she delivers across the country. Many of these Republican activists had heard it before. She criticizes the media. She urges the Republican establishment — she mentioned Karl Rove by name — you know, sort of like, come along. Support some of these candidates.

But she praised the Tea Party movement, silence in the room, because these are the Republican establishment people. So, she will really have an interesting line to walk if she decides to go forward. Will she go through the traditional process of the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, or will she try this a different way?

And if she tries it a different way, there are risks in that. We have seen other candidates sort of not, you know, come face-to-face. A lot of activists I talked to afterward said, if she is going to run, she needs to take some questions from us. She needs to get off this sort of scripted stage. So, we will see what she does. But, right now, I’m convinced she has not made up her mind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, you were saying that she doesn’t — didn’t follow the traditional route of meeting with party leaders or at least having a conversation with them.

Libby, what about that unconventional approach? Has that characterized her entire political career?

LIBBY CASEY: I think it has to a degree, but that has stepped up since the V.P. run, just the way that she has been able to control her message by choosing to use social media. A lot of candidates talk about using social media, but Sarah Palin does it very effectively.

What she writes on Facebook gets spread around. She doesn’t overexpose herself. She doesn’t make herself available to a lot of reporters, doesn’t answer a lot of questions. And, so, she has been able to control her message very effectively.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, very few.

LIBBY CASEY: But, if she wants to make friends in Iowa, and get the establishment there behind her, she’s going have to do a lot more of the door-to-door, go to the meetings, spend time over cups of coffee.

Now, she is very personable. You know, when you have a moment to talk to her — and, back in Alaska, before she made the move to the national stage, she was the kind of person you would see in the grocery store. And, so, she has that personable ability. The question is, does she really want to embark on that and get messy?

She is going to have to take questions and have a conversation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeff, how much does the outcome in this November affect how influential she will be going forward in 2012? I mean, if her candidates do well, obviously, that helps. But, if they didn’t, what would that mean?

JEFF ZELENY: I think it will play some bit of an effect. If the — say if six weeks from now that the Democrats manage to hold the House and hold the Senate and have a better year than expected. I think we will all be asking ourselves what is this sort of Tea Party movement, whatever. But, more likely, it will be a strong Republican year in some respect.

So, she will likely be able to find some winners in this vast, some 43 endorsements she’s made across the country. So, I think she emerges from November in a stronger position regardless.

The question is, what does she decide to do with it? I thought one thing was very interesting as she walked off the stage on Friday night in Iowa. She doesn’t do a lot of interviews. So, I really rushed the stage to ask her a question. And we said, when are you going to make your decision to run?

And she said, “I have no timeline,” but she said one thing pretty interesting. She said, “Even without a title, you can still make a big impact” — so definitely leaving the door open to not running.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I was going to say, leaving the door half-shut, half…

JEFF ZELENY: Exactly.

LIBBY CASEY: And not running may be more fun, ultimately. She may have a lot of power in playing the role of kingmaker or queenmaker to come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you can bet we’re going to be watching. And so are a lot of other folks. Libby Casey, Jeff Zeleny, thank you.

LIBBY CASEY: Thank you.

JEFF ZELENY: Thank you.