FAIRBANKS, ALASKA — As thousands of cheering supporters vowed to keep her feisty, down-home political legacy alive, Sarah Palin stepped down as Alaska governor Sunday, pledging to continue fighting for independence from Washington and for Americans' personal freedoms "as that grizzly guards her cubs."
The hand-over to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell at a family-style picnic marked an unexpected end to a brief but remarkable governorship in which the 45-year-old hockey mom turned the Republican Party on its head and propelled Alaska's frontier-style, moose-meat-picnic politics into the national dialogue.
"Let's not start believing that government is the answer," she told the largely affectionate crowd of about 5,000 at Pioneer Park. "It can't help make you healthy or wealthy or wise. What can? It is the wisdom of the people. . . . It is God's grace, helping those who help themselves."
Palin, Alaska's first female governor, stood on the podium in a conservative black pantsuit, joined by her husband, Todd, and two of their daughters, Piper and Willow.
Betraying no sadness or second thoughts, she chastised those who question why she stepped down 18 months before the end of her term.
"It should be so obvious to you," she said. "It is because I love Alaska this much, sir, that I feel that it is my duty to avoid the unproductive, typical politics-as-usual lame-duck session in one's last year in office. . . . I will be able to fight even harder for you, for what is right. And I have never felt that you need a title to do that."
Palin -- who famously described herself as a "pit bull with lipstick" last year, when she accepted the Republican vice presidential nomination -- took the opportunity Sunday to fire a last official grenade at the media, which she has blamed for distorting her statements and fueling controversies that have surrounded her.
"You represent what could and should be a respected and honest profession, that could and should be a cornerstone of our democracy," she said. "Democracy depends on you, and that is why our troops are willing to die for you. So how about in honor of the American soldier you quit making things up?"
Those sentiments drew the loudest applause of her speech.
She added: "Our new governor has a very nice family too, so leave his kids alone."
After her addition to the national ticket, Palin endured frequent bad publicity about her family, including her unwed teenage daughter Bristol's pregnancy and Bristol's breakup with the baby's father.
Palin has declined to say what she plans to do next -- other than write a book and make public appearances, beginning Aug. 8 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley. She has not ruled out a bid for the presidency in 2012.
At Sunday's picnic, few supporters appeared to believe that she would stay out of the limelight for long.
A woman with a boombox played a popular Palin political song: "Her name is Sarah Palin and the Bridge to Nowhere's gone; don't you ever say she should stay home and be a mom."
And Karen Kemp, on vacation from Hamilton, N.D., was one of many who wore a T-shirt with Palin's image outlined by a heart and the words "Sarah, We Still Love You."
"So many people like her conservativeness, the fact that she holds her family values high, and she believes in a good work ethic," Kemp said.
A small cadre of protesters got briefly booed as they skirted the crowd with placards saying "Flaking Out Is Sarahnormal" and "Proud to Be Palin Free."
Palin ticked off the accomplishments of her 2 1/2-year administration, which included enacting a comprehensive ethics reform bill, forcing Exxon to begin developing a long-unused oil and gas lease in the Arctic, vetoing millions of dollars in spending, and setting the legal framework for a new pipeline to transport gas for the first time from the North Slope.
"I've always believed it's your money and you know how to better spend it than government can spend it," she said. " . . . I vetoed hundreds of millions of dollars of excess, and as lawmakers we saved billions for the future."
The Legislature is scheduled to meet in special session Aug. 10 in an attempt to override Palin's parting veto of $28.6 million in federal energy conservation funds, part of Alaska's share of the economic stimulus package.
Palin also emphasized her attempts to develop the state's energy and other natural resources, which she characterized as a boon for U.S. energy independence. She scorned environmental organizations that have campaigned against her effort to open the coastline and Arctic shelf to more oil and gas development, her support of a major new mine near the fishing waters of Bristol Bay, and her support for aerial shooting of wolves that kill caribou and other game animals.
"Stiffen your spine to do what's right for Alaskans when the pressure mounts, because you're going to see anti-hunting . . . circuses from Hollywood . . . [who] use Alaska as a fundraising tool for their anti-2nd-Amendment causes," she said.