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Alaska's Palin facing polarizing problems

It's not getting any easier for the Alaska governor, who is becoming a more polarizing figure at home while trying to maintain a national profile from one of the most remote states in the union.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's not getting any easier for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who is becoming a more polarizing figure at home while she tries to maintain a national profile from one of the most remote states in the union.

Palin was once praised for her ability to work with Alaska Democrats to push through major initiatives, but in the wake of a bruising national campaign she's more likely now to reach across the aisle to pick a fight.

She exasperated Alaska Republican legislative leaders with mixed messages on federal stimulus plans and ended up crosswise with reporters over whether she did or didn't call on the state's junior U.S. Senator, Democrat Mark Begich, to resign.

Things haven't gone much better in the Lower 48 after she and GOP presidential candidate John McCain lost the election.

Last month, McCain wouldn't commit to endorsing his running mate for president if she ran in 2012. This week, he didn't even include her name in a list of young and dynamic Republican governors.

Palin once wowed thousands of supporters at campaign rallies, but was dropped recently as the keynote speaker of a high profile Republican fundraiser in Washington, D.C., after a communications mix-up between event organizers and her political action committee.

And this week, lawmakers are slashing her budget ahead of a Sunday adjournment. Instead of staying in Juneau, Palin attended another partisan fundraiser: a Thursday night county right-to-life dinner in Indiana.

Palin's actions of late have left many political observers scratching their heads over her future plans.

University of Alaska Fairbanks political science professor Gerald McBeath said he can't tell if she's preparing for re-election in 2010, a presidential run in 2012 or something else altogether.

"Her actions don't fit together in a pattern," McBeath said. "So that leaves me to suspect she hasn't figured it out. She hasn't decided. Or alternatively, maybe that's just part of her style and we just haven't gotten used to it yet.

"That would be a charitable interpretation," he added.

Palin's only announcement about her future is that she won't challenge U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, next year.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Palin's traction outside the state has also slipped. Her public relations have been a disaster, he said, from the mix-up over the GOP dinner to the recent tell-all television interviews with Levi Johnston, who fathered a child with Palin's teenage daughter and is claiming to be squeezed out of the infant's life after he and Bristol Palin broke up.

"Almost everything that we've heard in the Lower 48 has been about controversy of one variety or another. Some have put her in a terrible light, such as the Levi Johnston matter. I mean, really, at a certain point you cease having the gravitas to run for president," Sabato said.

Courting the base
Palin had enjoyed the fruits of an unusually successful first two years in office, marked by passing the groundwork to build a multibillion dollar natural gas pipeline and presiding over a multibillion dollar revenue surplus driven by high oil prices. Last year, she handed out $1 billion of that surplus in fat checks to Alaskans.

But now a failed national campaign is not the only reality. She's dealing with a tighter state budget because of lower oil prices, and some question if she isn't more preoccupied with thoughts of Washington than Juneau.

While she continues to court the national conservative base, attending events like the Indiana dinner, Palin says she has turned down other requests outside the state in order to focus on Alaska.

"My priorities are to progress this state working with the other branch of government there, the lawmakers, to make sure we are meeting the priorities of our constituents," Palin said at a recent news conference. "Nothing has changed."

Recent polls show Palin is still popular among Alaskans, even though at least one "Impeach Palin" sign has sprouted in Anchorage.

But the once-brash young governor can be harsh these days at the Capitol, especially when dealing with Democrats, who used to be staunch allies on energy initiatives.

The end of session has been marked by a prolonged standoff between Palin and Democrats over filling Juneau's vacant Senate seat.

She has to choose a Democrat for the seat to replace the incumbent, but has ignored the wishes of the Juneau Democratic Party, who wanted her to select a state representative who had questioned Palin's qualifications to be vice president last fall. Palin instead asked other Juneau Democrats to apply to her directly, and the Senate Democrats have rejected her first two selections.

She had another flap over a Democrat, namely Begich, who beat former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, last November after Stevens was convicted of felony charges of failing to disclose gifts on Senate forms.

When a judge last week threw out the conviction because of prosecutorial misconduct, Palin immediately joined local GOP leaders in calling for Begich to resign and for a special election to be held. Later Palin claimed she didn't call for Begich to resign, only that a special election be held.

When asked how an election could take place without his resignation, she said: "I'm not splitting hairs."

Her evolving positions on the stimulus package have also put her at odds with a nearly unified state House and Senate.

In another nod to the conservative base, Palin announced she was not accepting nearly half the stimulus spending, saying the strings attached would burden the state in the future. That half actually turned out to be only a third of the money headed to Alaska. Then Republican leaders said they couldn't find any strings.

More recently, even as Palin disparaged the stimulus money as "an unsustainable, debt-ridden package of funds," she changed course and proposed using some of that money to replace state spending on education. Senate leaders rejected the idea as being too late and too risky.

Palin's defensive posture and waffling is at odds with the resolute and self-assured Palin of the past. Even her sometimes divisive nominee for attorney general said he wanted to help Palin regain her footing and re-establish better communications with lawmakers.

"As somebody in her cabinet said the other day, 'You can't kick every dog that barks at you,'" Wayne Anthony Ross, Palin's nominee for attorney general, told the House Judiciary Committee at his confirmation hearing. "I'm trying to convince her that she ought not get treed by the Chihuahuas."