When Sarah Palin, in a rambling lakeside announcement last July in Wasilla, said she was quitting as governor of Alaska because of the abuse she and her family were taking from petty politicians and a feral press, she was written off as dead by the pundits.
“A quitter, can’t take the heat,” was the Beltway consensus.
Yet, it seems that was no more the end of Sarah than it was the end of Richard Nixon when, after losing to Gov. Pat Brown in California in 1962, he spat at the press: “Just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
Six years later, Nixon took the oath on the Capitol steps.
And though the media have painted Palin as a ditz, no politician in memory has conducted a more brilliant pre-presidential campaign, if that is what she is about, than the lady who calls herself “the Mama Grizzly.”
Consider Tuesday. Palin had gambled big by going into South Carolina to endorse Nikki Haley, a state legislator running last for the GOP nomination for governor — against the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and a congressman.
Haley instantly vaulted into the lead, taking 49 percent on primary day, and is headed for the governor’s mansion — in a Palmetto State that holds what is often the decisive primary in presidential nomination runs.
Nikki was Sarah’s kind of conservative with a populist touch.
But Terry Branstad is not. This ex-governor of Iowa, who served four terms ending in 1998, is a moderate. Yet Palin endorsed him in his comeback bid over a conservative backed by Dr. James Dobson and Mike Huckabee.
After his victory Tuesday, Branstad, too, is headed for the governor’s mansion in a state that hosts the first big battle of 2012 — the Iowa caucuses.
By bringing conservatives to Branstad’s camp, Palin can claim some credit for returning him to office, though Mitt Romney backed Branstad earlier and his and Branstad’s staffs are said to be wired.
The endorsement of Branstad suggests Palin, a politician of principle, has a pragmatic streak. She acts not only out of instinct but cold calculation. How else to explain the Branstad endorsement over a social conservative than a decision to befriend a future GOP governor in the first battleground state of 2012?
Other interventions this cycle reveal Palin to be far more savvy than the caricature drawn by the left.
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a colleague of Palin’s in the GOP Governor’s Association, was facing an uphill battle against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who had the backing of Dick Cheney — Mr. National Security and the most visible national Republican of 2009.
Cheney went to Texas for Hutchison. Palin went in for Perry, who had scrambled to the Tea Party right, even raising the specter of secession. Perry won in a walk. Palin 1, Cheney 0.
Perry will lead the second-largest bloc of delegates to the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla. The largest will come from California, where Carly Fiorina — another one of Palin’s mama grizzlies — won the GOP Senate nod on Tuesday. Palin had endorsed her over the more conservative Chuck DeVore.
In Kentucky, where the establishment backed Mitch McConnell’s handpicked successor to Sen. Jim Bunning, Trey Grayson, and Cheney went in for Grayson, Palin endorsed Rand Paul, son of Ron Paul, who has a loyal libertarian following.
With Palin and Tea Party backing, Rand won. The Pauls, too, owe a debt to Sarah. Palin 2, Cheney 0.
In Arizona, Palin, who is closer in her politics to J.D. Hayworth, came to campaign for embattled Sen. John McCain, who chose her as his running mate and made her a star.
McCain’s aides have been anonymously trashing Sarah as an airhead who had caused the ticket’s defeat. She repaid their disloyalty with unqualified loyalty to McCain, who is unlikely to forget what she did, at some cost to herself.
But it was Sarah’s first intervention, in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, where she showed a boldness that marks the better politicians.
Liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava was handpicked by the party to face Democrat Bill Owens in the Republican district. Doug Hoffman, endorsed by the Conservative Party, jumped in. Newt Gingrich urged Republicans to stand by the pro-choice, pro-gay-rights Scozzafava.
Palin went rogue and declared for Hoffman, who surged past Scozzafava, who fell to third, bowed out and endorsed Owens, who won by two. That was the first manifestation of Palin Power. Palin 1, Newt 0.
Looking over Palin’s endorsements — McCain over J.D., Fiorina over DeVore, Branstad over Bob Vander Plaats and Rod Roberts — the lady is not running for Mrs. Conservative. The one explanation that makes the most sense of all the seeming inconsistencies in endorsements is that Mama Grizzly is thinking about moving the Wasilla brood into the big house.