In a wooded rear parking lot cordoned off with police tape, Sarah Palin stepped out of a big black sport-utility vehicle on Feb. 17 and entered through the gaudy gates of the Crest Hollow Country Club in Long Island. She wore a dour black skirt and matching blouse; a bulky red, white and blue wristband; and a pair of leopard print heels.
Palin was not there to rally her rowdy base—in fact, her SUV had breezed by some Tea Partiers gathered at the club’s entrance—but to address the membership of the Long Island Association, New York’s largest business group.
There to greet her was Kevin Law, the group’s president. Law had briefly considered booking other 2012 contenders—Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee were available—but only one was capable of generating buzz equal to that of the LIA’s last speaker, former president Bill Clinton.
“There’s a lot of intrigue,” Law said. “It’s like, who is this woman? Is she real? Is she running for president? Or is she running to be rich and famous?”
Since her controversial turn as John McCain’s running mate, Palin has leveraged her polarizing personality into a lucrative quasi-campaign premised on exactly those questions.
The intrigue has allowed Palin to milk her moment for six-figure speaking fees and a gold-plated contract as a Fox News contributor.
But her high-wattage tour of America, while officially not about 2012, has attracted presidential-level attention for a reason. It has essentially put the Republican primary process on hold, as other candidates, as well as major operatives and donors, wait to see what she’s going to do before moving too aggressively to commit themselves in any direction. Despite her middling poll numbers, the mere threat of her candidacy has become the main event.
“It’s chilled their operations,” said Ross Baker, a political affairs professor at Rutgers University. “I think the game that she’s playing is kind of a political striptease, in which everybody is kind of hovering around, waiting for the ultimate revelation. She’s jerking a lot of chains. And I think she really enjoys it.”
Palin seemed to be enjoying herself in Long Island. By all accounts, she was gracious and gregarious at a pre-luncheon reception for the day’s top sponsors, who had paid handsomely for a handshake and a photo. She chatted amiably, signed copies of her books, smiled for a whole line of photos and answered questions about her dangly earrings. (Whalebone!)
Later, sitting on the dais, Palin took her name card, wrote a little note on it—“Dear Kevin, thank you so much for having me. God bless you, Sarah Palin”—and placed it next to Law’s plate.
When the two of them finally rose to take her seat for an hour-long question-and-answer session, a crush of flashbulbs swarmed to greet her.
In the weeks leading up to her visit, there had been signs that the media might be growing weary of her will-I-or-won’t-I act.
On Jan. 16, The New York Times’ resident conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, called the courtship between Palin and the press a “twisted, wretched, ruinous relationship,” and urged reporters to stop taking her seriously as a presidential contender.
Five days later, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank declared February a Palin-free month, an exercise in restraint that he encouraged other writers to join. But most of the press remains powerless to resist.
By 9 a.m., a dozen cameramen were already waiting to erect their tripods on a two-tiered riser at the back of the room, and by 10 a.m., all of the seats in the reporters’ anteroom had been spoken for.
All of the major networks were in attendance—ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox—along with several local affiliates, a few glossy magazines—Newsweek, National Review—a handful of daily papers—The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post and Newsday—and a smattering of wire services and radio outlets.
There were two reporters from Politico (which, according to Milbank, had written 96 Palin items in a single month).
And then there was the foreign press: one camera from Swedish television, one columnist from Italy’s La Stampa and two reporters from Japanese daily the Asahi Shimbun.
All of this, despite the fact Palin would—and did—avoid taking any questions from the media, and was all but certain to demur on her presidential ambitions.
“You have a lot of candidates who have the potential to grow, but if there’s even the potential for Sarah Palin to get in, they won’t grow,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster.
Those candidates include nearly all of the new blood at the national level who have yet to make recognizable names for themselves, such as Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor; Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels; and Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania.
“The margin-of-error candidates, those who are under 3 or 4 percent right now, she’s taking oxygen and media attention from them that they need to develop a candidacy,” McLaughlin said. “So she’s hurting them right now.”
The relative lack of coverage has left candidates without the kind of documentary evidence they can take to big donors to show that their campaign is taking off, which has left the contributor class to guess about who might be capable of gaining traction.
“At the end of the day, most big donors want to be with a winner,” said one uncommitted donor. But no one is quite sure if that winning profile might be a new face, or one of the out-of-office standbys, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or even former New York Gov. George Pataki.
With Palin lingering, the dynamics of the race are nearly impossible to predict. Four years ago, with a narrow field of contenders, most big donors had already cast their lot, and the campaigns had constructed well-oiled fundraising machines that bankrolled a bidding war for the top political talent. But if there is an arms race on the horizon this cycle, it seems destined for some distant quarter.
“Nobody’s hired any staff because nobody’s raising any money,” said a Republican strategist who served as a top adviser in 2008.
In January, Romney became the first candidate to fill a couple of key vacancies, announcing he had hired a political director and a pollster.
But most of the consulting world is still on the sidelines.
“Right now, I’m like a lot of the voters, seeing who’s getting in, and what their message is,” McLaughlin said.
On Long Island, Palin was accompanied only by daughter Bristol and an event manager from her speaking agency, the Washington Speakers Bureau.
During the campaign, Palin was said to be choosing which candidates to endorse based largely on her own online research, rooted primarily in which campaigns made the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, and how they stood with the Tea Party.
On Long Island, Palin enlisted Bristol’s help.
“Last night, I’m in my hotel room and I’ve got my entourage with me—that would be Bristol,” she told the crowd, to laughs. “And I’m asking Bristol, I’m telling her, ‘You’ve got to Google some stuff for me; you’ve got to look up some stats and some figures for me,’” said Palin, who came armed with a binder of materials that included a 1964 Reader’s Digest that decried President Johnson’s war on poverty.
Last week, Palin hired a new chief of staff, Michael Glassner, who served as an aide to her vice presidential campaign in 2008.
Glassner, who has a reputation for being an extremely low-profile operative, did not join her in Long Island. But by all accounts, Glassner, a native Kansan who now lives in New Jersey, is the kind of organizational dynamo that could quietly lay the groundwork for a national campaign. He managed Bob Dole’s 1992 re-election campaign and was a top adviser on the senator’s presidential bid in 1996.
“You won’t see him talking to the media. You won’t find a lot of places where he’s been quoted in his career,” said Bill Lacy, a friend and former Dole adviser. “He’s very behind the scenes, very loyal, very committed.”
Those are the qualities most valued in Palin Land, and Glassner is not the kind of flashy hire likely to push her toward a presidential bid.
“I think Mike’s style is that of an individual who gives his advice and suggests certain things, but fundamentally understands that the principal is the one who ultimately makes the decisions,” Lacy said.
On Feb. 17, the principal downplayed Glassner’s new role.
“Just in the past couple weeks, we’ve just been so doggone busy, Todd has said, ‘Look, I do have a couple things that I need to do,’ with his businesses and the things that he does,” Palin said. “So we hired a chief of staff for practical, logistical reasons, and it’s been heavenly to have someone besides Todd to help me out with everything we’re undertaking.”
What exactly Palin is undertaking is likely to remain unclear for quite some time.
She told the crowd in Long Island about the irreplaceable importance of hitting the hustings and pressing the flesh, but she has yet to make any notable advances on the early states, preferring to communicate with potential primary voters from her perch at Fox News.
Asked about the possibility of mounting a very unconventional campaign, Palin said: “That’s what going rogue is all about.”
And some believe she may not need the kind of titanic infrastructure that has always been required in the past.
“These presidential campaigns and primaries are huge,” said a longtime adviser to several national Republican campaigns. “They are battleships that have to be built. But she may very well teach us they are no longer battleships, they could be an army of PT vessels or something, with equal effect. We’ve yet to know.”
The obsessive interest in her plans gives her an outsize platform on Facebook and Twitter, which allows her to continue her quasi-campaign without mounting an actual one.
“She’s got a built-in constituency in the party that no one else has,” said Baker, the political science professor. “Therefore, she has flexibility that none of them have. They ultimately really have to declare, whereas she can waltz in at a later time. She’s able to build up her 401(k) pretty impressively, and then I guess when she’s satisfied that she’s had enough, she can switch to the other track.”
Palin overstayed her one-hour contract, and answered questions for nearly 75 minutes. She rose to loud applause and ducked behind the blue curtain at the back of the room.
“I think she does better in person than on TV, and I watch Fox News a lot,” said Helen Villacampa, a 77-year-old from Baldwin, N.Y., who was waiting in the lobby for her ride. Villacampa had paid $350 to see Palin after reading about the event in Newsday.
“I don’t want to see it on TV because you’ve got monitors and things like that,” she explained. “She spoke without any of that. And after seeing that, I will vote for her. And she better run. Period.”
That kind of unqualified support has put even blue-state politicians in an awkward spot. Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy smiled as reporters rushed to get his reaction to Palin’s remarks.
“She’s certainly a compelling figure; whether you agree or disagree with Sarah Palin the governor, she is quite a force in American politics today,” said Levy, a former Democrat who is now eyeing higher office as a Republican.
For New York’s semi-hopeful presidential candidates, the challenge is to distinguish themselves without alienating Palin’s supporters.
Pataki—a classic Republican moderate who tried to make inroads with the Tea Party crowd through his anti-“Obamacare” Revere America organization—has said he could “certainly” support her.
(Two weeks ago, another contender, Santorum, had tried to offer some slightly pointed criticism, only to be dragged through the news cycle as a “knuckle-dragging Neanderthal” when she responded on Sean Hannity’s show.)
“It’s no surprise that other potential candidates genuflect her way at every opportunity and shy away from any criticism,” said Mark McKinnon, a former McCain adviser who called her the “X” factor in a primary, whether she enters or not.
Giuliani, without being critical, tried in January to draw a contrast when asked whether he’d be more likely to run if Palin didn’t.
“Maybe the opposite,” he told CNN’s Piers Morgan, “because my one chance, if I have a chance, is that I’m considered a moderate Republican, so the more Republicans in which I can show a contrast, probably the better chance I have.”
(“I don’t know what he means by that,” Palin responded when asked about it. “I’m going to have to ask him.”)
But even that kind of answer can be problematic. “If that’s what Rudy Giuliani needs to make him jump into the race, that’s the wrong reason,” said Joseph Sawicki, the Republican comptroller of Suffolk County, who attended the event.
Palin left Long Island without giving the political class any better sense of whether she might actually enter the race, save, perhaps, for one subtle hint that she might be back, sometime in the future, to spend more time in the Empire State.
“I said, ‘Listen, let me give you a tip,’” Law said he told her just before she climbed back into her black SUV. “‘The next time you come to Long Island, you’ve got to come with the nice weather,’” recommending the summer, when the beaches are nice.
“She just smiled and said, ‘I’ll take you up on that.’”