Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's abrupt announcement that she was quitting her job unleashed widespread speculation: Some said she was ready to launch a 2012 bid for president. Others suggested she had destroyed her chances with her startling decision.
Palin, speaking from the backyard of her lakefront home in Wasilla, Alaska, said Friday that she had ruled out seeking a second term and, for the good of the state, would step down at the end of the month and hand the job to her lieutenant governor.
In disjointed and cryptic remarks, she intimated that she would stay active in national politics. "We know we can effect positive change outside government at this point in time on another scale and actually make a difference for our priorities," she said, flanked by her husband, Todd, and members of their family -- whom she described as exuberant supporters of her resignation.
Many took that to mean a full-fledged run for the Republican nomination, without the encumbrance of her office and the difficulty of navigating a national campaign while running a state thousands of miles from the action.
But the fact that Palin, 45, will vacate her elected post without finishing the four-year term -- which would have bolstered a political resume already thin enough that it hampered her 2008 bid for vice president -- led some analysts to suggest that she had badly damaged herself, perhaps irretrievably.
"I always thought after the race what she needed to do was go back to Alaska and be substantive, show she's got a grasp of government and work for the good of the folks back home. This seems to be the exact opposite," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent campaign analyst in Washington. "This makes her subject to the criticism that for whatever reason -- she gets tired, bored, criticized too much -- she just walks away."
Palin experienced a rapid ascent after Sen. John McCain of Arizona plucked her from relative obscurity last summer to serve as his running mate. She was a huge hit at the Republican National Convention, delivering a tenacious attack on the Democratic ticket in a fetching, folksy manner.
But her image quickly frayed after some disastrous TV interviews turned her into a punch line for late-night comics; Tina Fey's impersonation of Palin on "Saturday Night Live" became a cultural touchstone and a burden the candidate carried all fall.
Palin remains a favorite of social conservatives, who have traditionally exerted strong influence over the selection of the Republican nominee. That support and her near-universal name recognition had placed her near the top of early polls for the 2012 GOP contest. A spokeswoman said Friday that Palin's political action committee, SarahPAC, continued to accept donations, which rose after her announcement.
But Palin draws visceral contempt from many Democrats, political independents and even Republicans -- among them some McCain advisors who shared their sentiments, anonymously, in a recent unflattering article in Vanity Fair magazine.
Palin seemed to allude to those attacks at her hastily called news conference. "You are naive if you don't see a full-court press from the national level picking away a good point guard," said Palin, who was a famously aggressive basketball star in high school.
She said her decision to step down with 18 months left in her term had been some time in the making, though she never clearly spelled out why. She did not take questions.
"Many just accept that lame-duck status, and they hit that road," Palin said. "They draw a paycheck. They kind of milk it. And I'm not going to put Alaskans through that."
Palin alternately expressed pain and relief at her decision to resign, saying it was "best for Alaska." She also suggested it was best for her family. "I polled the most important people in my life -- my kids -- where the count was unanimous," she said. "It was four yeses and one 'Hell, yeah!' And the 'Hell, yeah' sealed it."
Palin said her successor, Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, would be sworn in July 26 at the governor's annual picnic in Fairbanks. Parnell said he learned of Palin's decision Wednesday evening.
"It's a gob-smacking, jaw-hit-the-ground, total kind of surprise," said Ivan Moore, an independent pollster in Anchorage, who said Palin had been a strong favorite to win a second term. He was skeptical of her national appeal.
"Whatever possibility she had of being President Palin, Vice President Palin or even U.S. Sen. Palin is gone now," Moore said. "She ended her political career."
Walking away from a job like governor for any reason besides poor health, scandal or political promotion is highly unusual, and Palin's action raised questions of whether some damaging revelation was in the offing.
"She has to understand, when one resigns from office abruptly like that, people are going to be suspicious," said Ken Khachigian, a GOP strategist and Palin fan. "If I were advising her, I would say, 'You have to take the next step, and you better make it quick.' "