Reporting from Washington — Sarah Palin put on full display Wednesday all that makes her a formidable yet divisive contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination — inspiring to some, maddening to others, a powerhouse who commands the sort of media attention her putative GOP rivals can only envy.
In an eight-minute video posted online, the former Alaska governor fiercely dismissed any notion that her firearms-infused political messages in 2010 ("Don't retreat, instead — reload!") contributed to the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in Tucson, adding that "journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel" by trying to assign blame beyond the actions of a deranged gunman.
The video had elements of a presidential-level address, with an American flag featured prominently in the frame. Palin spoke in a calm tone — noticeably different from her rousing "mama grizzly" style during last year's election campaign — about the democratic process and the need to condemn violence "if the republic is to endure." She appealed for a common response to the tragedy, saying, "We need strength to not let the random acts of a criminal turn us against ourselves, or weaken our solid foundation, or provide a pretext to stifle debate."
She released the video on the same day that President Obama traveled to Arizona to speak at a memorial service, and won a position opposite the president on many news outlets. By comparison, potential GOP candidates Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee this week issued statements on the shootings that went largely unnoticed.
Ken Khachigian, a former speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Reagan and a longtime GOP strategist in California, said he was struck by Palin's bearing in the video, saying he thought the former vice presidential nominee "appeared more grown-up."
"She captured some of what she did at the [Republican] convention in '08," he said. "She was more conversational, more dignified."
In her message, Palin did not refer directly to accusations that her use last year of a map showing Giffords' Arizona district, among others, targeted in crosshairs helped foster a climate of violence. Instead, she said, "After this shocking tragedy, I listened at first puzzled, then with concern and now with sadness to the irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame for this terrible event."
The resulting "blood libel" serves "only to incite the hatred and violence that they purport to condemn," she said. "That is reprehensible."
Jewish groups and others reacted swiftly, saying Palin had associated her political plight with centuries of anti-Semitic behavior. A "blood libel" is a term that dates back to the Middle Ages, when Jewish people were accused of using the blood of Christians in religious rituals.
"Palin's comments either show a complete ignorance of history or blatant anti-Semitism," said Jonathan Beeton, a spokesman for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who, like Giffords, is Jewish. "Either way, it shows an appalling lack of sensitivity given Rep. Giffords' faith and the events of the past week."
But Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz, commenting Wednesday on the Big Government website operated by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, defended Palin's use of the term.
"There is nothing improper and certainly nothing anti-Semitic in Sarah Palin using the term to characterize what she reasonably believes are false accusations that her words or images may have caused a mentally disturbed individual to kill and maim," Dershowitz said.
Within a few hours of the video's release, more than 30,000 supporters on Facebook cheered her comments, a reminder of the abiding allegiance Palin inspires among many conservatives.
Possible GOP presidential candidates have been wary of criticizing her. Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, took a minor jab at her Tuesday morning, saying the now-infamous target map was not "my style." By that afternoon, he told conservative interviewers that "people shouldn't try to connect this to Sarah Palin," whom he called a "remarkable leader."
Todd Harris, a Republican strategist, said his problem with the Palin video is that it will "be loved by those who love her, hated by those who already hate her."
"What she said was beautifully written and she delivered with the same star power that she always brings, but it seemed like there was little effort to connect with the broader American audience," he said.
Khachigian contended that Palin had to respond to her critics. "There was a feeding frenzy taking place," he said, praising her for giving no ground. "She shouldn't have to concede. This is an effort by some to cow her into lowering her voice and stopping her message."
Palin's message will only increase speculation that she plans to run for president. In the video, she clearly embraced the role as a leader of her party who stands in opposition to Obama.
"The last election was all about taking responsibility for our country's future," she said. "President Obama and I may not agree on everything, but I know he would join me in affirming the health of our democratic process. Two years ago his party was victorious. Last November the other party won."