Sarah Palin 2012: Will She or Won’t She?

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REUTERS / Allen Fredrickson

For much of 2010, Sarah Palin kept the media whipped into a frenzied state over one question: Will she or won’t she run for President? Reporters picked apart every move from pragmatic candidate endorsements in early primary states to her mama bear-references on her Alaska-themed reality show. This means she will. That means she won’t.

Fast forward six months — Palin has kept a mostly low profile, and had one bad misstep when she released a tone-deaf video in the wake of the Gabby Gifford’s shooting. Just as the media stopped caring and found other shiny toys to play with, Palin comes back to taunt us with the possibility of a run.
This time around she’s showing a little more leg. She went on Fox News and said she has “a fire in her belly” to run. She’ll be the focus of a feature-length film, entitled “The Undefeated,” premiering in Iowa. She’s taking a “learning” bus tour of historical sites ending in New Hampshire. She’s bought a home in Arizona where her staff has been mulling setting up a campaign headquarters for a potential presidential run. She’s even beefed up her staff, finally hiring a chief of staff.

However: Her inner circle is equally cautious not to “read too much” into her recent moves. “No decisions have been made,” they repeat over and over. Fox News is secure enough that she’s not running that they’ve yet to cancel her contract like they did with New Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Palin hasn’t hired – or even reached out to – staff in any of the early states, and all the good organizers are quickly getting snapped up by other candidates. She hasn’t announced an exploratory committee, so any money that she’s raising right now goes to her leadership political action committee and couldn’t be used for a presidential run.

It’s true, as Karl Rove put it on Greta Van Susteren Thursday night, that Palin’s name recognition and devoted base gives her the luxury of a late entry. “I don’t think she thinks the rules apply to her,” Rove said. “She doesn’t need to have the traditional trappings of a presidential campaign. No finance committee, she can raise the money. She doesn’t need to go shake a lot of hands in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.”

Indeed, Palin has always said if she ran she’d do things differently. In Alaska, bucking the establishment worked for her. The question is: Can she replicate that nationally? She certainly is good at grabbing the media spotlight, but can that translate into staying power? And, more importantly, does she want it to?

Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump both used head fakes at presidential runs to beef up their media exposure and drum up ratings. What if Palin does this bus tour and then another and then another and at the end of June announces a new reality show contract? Fool me once…

Whatever she does, she’s poised to suck up all the oxygen from the race for as long as her flirtations last. Michele Bachmann touring Iowa? Mitt Romney making his bid official in New Hampshire? Rick Santorum throwing his hat in the ring in Pennsylvania? All of these events will likely be overshadowed by Palin’s media extravaganza. And every candidate will have to brace themselves to be asked whether or not they agree with whatever shocking thing Palin said most recently. For a primary that’s supposedly boring and uninspired, at least Palin adds color. “She’s the P.T. Barnum of politics,” says Mark McKinnon, a GOP strategist and former adviser to George W. Bush. “And it looks like the circus is coming to town. Whether she runs or not, she’s going to be center stage.