Sarah Palin obviously retains national ambitions despite the pounding she took as the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008. If she does re-emerge, will she come back more like Dan Quayle or Ronald Reagan?
On its surface, the former seems more likely than the latter. Palin was not the primary reason Republicans lost the White House in November, but she became so polarizing – largely on questions over her competence – that she may have Quayle-esque mountains to overcome.
Palin remains wildly popular with the most devoted Republicans, witnessed by the rock-star reception she received while campaigning for the re-election of Sen. Saxby Chambliss in Georgia’s runoff.
But among the chronically uncommitted and independent Americans who typically decide national elections, Palin was not nearly so well received. This is the group the Alaska governor will have to sway if she has any future beyond Juneau.
Still, those writing her off entirely ignore recent history. During Ronald Reagan’s first run for national office in 1976 he, too, was criticized as a shallow intellect and too conservative to be elected.
Four years later, he stomped a reformist Democrat, incumbent Jimmy Carter. Taking any bets on the re-election of Barack Obama, another Democrat reformist, in 2012 is risky business.
Most significantly, a post-election poll of American women by Republican Kellyanne Conway and Democrat Celinda Lake suggests Palin’s problems could be different from what Quayle faced after his first national campaign in 1988.
Quayle never was able to shake the disastrous label that he was not ready for prime time, a claim that was neatly encapsulated in the “you’re no Jack Kennedy” sound bite from the late Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle’s ’88 opponent for vice president.
But while devoted Republicans to this day still think Quayle got a bum rap from a hostile media, most other Americans did not. That does not appear to be the case with Palin, at least among women, who are a permanent majority of the American electorate.
A big majority – 64 percent – of the women surveyed by Conway and Lake said they felt Palin got more negative media coverage than other candidates did because she was a woman. That was more than twice as many as the 31 percent that said the same thing of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Sympathy toward Palin stretched across ideological and party identifications, with many women who did not vote for Palin saying she was unfairly covered because of her gender. The poll of 600 women, taken Nov. 21-24, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
During the Democratic primaries, some Clinton supporters believed President-elect Barack Obama ran a subtly sexist and condescending campaign against her.
That twice as many women would think Palin was unfairly treated because of her gender was one of the most startling findings of the Conway-Lake poll, conducted for Lifetime Networks.
Women, Conway said, believe no male would face questions about “the maternity of a man’s baby, or a wardrobe or hairstyles.” The references were to Internet-fueled falsehoods that Palin’s youngest son actually was her daughter’s, about controversies over clothing the campaign bought for her and about criticism of her appearance.
“I just don’t read the same stories about hair plugs or bad comb-overs,” Conway said, a not-so-subtle reference to Vice President-elect Joe Biden.
Women running for national office, Conway said, are so different from the norm of “what is probably the second oldest profession, and one that is perhaps the most male-dominated,” that Palin was bound to be judged differently. People had a short window to draw their conclusions and this unfamiliar model.
And Conway argued the Alaska governor would have been far more effective if John McCain’s campaign had her focus on issues important to women, like special-needs children and the economy, instead of making her the primary attack person of Obama’s ties to 1960s radical William Ayres.
Conway said Palin should understand “this is Barack Obama’s time,” and to “first wait, and then plan and proceed.”
“She needs to reintroduce herself on her own terms without handlers and people controlling her schedule and buying her clothes and telling her which black dot to stand on,” Conway said, “and (to say) stupid things like, ‘palling around with terrorists.’ ”
Chuck Raasch is political editor for Gannett News Service. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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