The hubbub in the United States over Sarah Palin's use of the charged term "blood libel" obscures a larger point: the former Alaska governor is weighing a run for the presidency in unprecedented and even daring ways, commanding nationwide attention with her selective use of Facebook and Twitter, and choosing provocative words where others would be more diplomatic.
Some political pros say her tactics, which distance her from mainstream reporters and neutral audiences, are savvy and effective. Others say she will have to change if she hopes to win the crucial Iowa caucus or New Hampshire primary, let alone the 2012 general election. Many agree she is testing the campaign possibilities of fast-changing social media.
Iowa and New Hampshire traditionally mark the first major tests of the presidential campaign season.
Palin was bound to be drawn into the national debate that followed Saturday's shooting rampage in Arizona, which killed six people and gravely wounded Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Last March, Giffords noted in a TV interview that Palin's political committee had targeted her district (among others) with crosshairs, and "there are consequences to that action."
There is no evidence that the accused gunman, Jared Loughner, knew of Palin's actions. But Giffords' remarks seemed eerily prophetic, and her husband and friends complained bitterly of the criticisms Republicans had heaped on her in the fall campaign.
Palin issued a brief statement of condolences Saturday, when some news reports said Giffords was dead. She rebuffed countless media requests for further comment.
On Monday, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck read an e-mail from Palin saying, "Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence."
On Wednesday, Palin posted a video on her Facebook page in which she defended her actions and rebuked the news media and her critics.
"Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding," she said, facing the camera, "journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn."
The term "blood libel" raised eyebrows. While the phrase "has become part of the English parlance to refer to someone being falsely accused," said Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, it is "fraught with pain in Jewish history."
The term is associated with centuries-old claims that Jews killed Christian children for rituals. Some Jewish lawmakers felt Palin's comments were especially ill-advised because Giffords is Jewish.
While bloggers speculated about whether Palin knew the term's history, political pros marveled at her continued ability to dive into national debates when, where and how she chooses.
"Nobody understands her base better than she does," said Democratic consultant Erik Smith. He said Palin has established "a communications mechanism that gets around the mainstream media."
'Dominant media presence'
Republican strategist and commentator John Feehery said Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee, "is now the dominant media presence on the Republican/Tea Party front. She can make news quicker and more effectively than any other conservative Republican." Palin has associated herself with the ultraconservative tea party movement.
If she should decide to run for president, Feehery said, "you would have to make her the favorite to win the nomination." But he said he doubts she could beat President Barack Obama in November 2012.
That is a possibility that worries many Republicans. Polls, all conducted before the Tucson shootings, show Palin to be the most divisive of the potential Republican candidates. Many Americans are solidly for or against her, and relatively few are undecided.
"Will Palin run?" is almost a parlor game in political circles. Wednesday's video did little to settle it. Some politicians questioned why a presidential hopeful would take chances with phrases like "blood libel" at a time when many elected officials are trying to lower the rhetorical temperature.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, another possible Republican presidential candidate, told The New York Times it is wrong to blame politicians for the Tucson tragedy. As for the use of crosshairs to target House districts, which Palin's video suggested is commonplace, Pawlenty said: "It's not a device I would have chosen."
Some saw Palin's video as a sign she is eager to challenge Obama. She twice referred to America as "exceptional." That is a favorite phrase of conservatives who say the president refuses to acknowledge the nation's well-earned prominence.
Some Republicans doubt that Palin and her small group of confidants spend a lot of time in deep, strategic thinking. She seems to follow her instincts, they say, which have helped propel her to remarkable amounts of fame and wealth, starting, of course, when John McCain made her his vice presidential running mate in 2008.
Many Democrats think Palin is much better at making money and gossipy headlines than in assembling the kind of political operation that can carry her to the White House.
"Every time she pops off she excites her narrowing band of partisans, and probably makes herself more money, but she further alienates everyone else," said Democratic consultant Jim Jordan, a veteran of presidential campaigns.
Historically, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire insist on questioning presidential hopefuls in small and frequent gatherings. That tradition would force Palin to emerge from her cocoon. Some campaign veterans, however, think Palin might be able to use rapidly expanding social media outlets to reach and inspire primary voters in novel ways.
"She's a very savvy practitioner of new media," Smith said. A candidate probably cannot win the Iowa and New Hampshire Republican contests entirely with Facebook, Twitter and similar outlets, he said, "but you can do an awful lot."