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Sarah Palin's bus tour steals spotlight from GOP presidential candidates

Some Republican observers say the former Alaska governor is playing it smart to stay relevant while she considers her future.

May 31, 2011|By Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times
  • Sarah Palin visits Independence Hall in Philadelphia with her daughter Piper.
Sarah Palin visits Independence Hall in Philadelphia with her daughter… (Jeff Fusco, Getty Images )

Reporting from Philadelphia — Sarah Palin's bus tour took her to Philadelphia's Liberty Bell and a pizza dinner with Donald Trump in New York on Tuesday, moves that may not have telegraphed serious presidential intentions but at least gave her another day of something immeasurable: attention.

Republican candidates who are intensely wooing early-state voters found themselves eclipsed for another day by the former Alaska governor, who repeated Tuesday that she was pondering whether to run. Unlike them, Palin found herself surrounded by reporters and voters, her bus tour bringing her back to the forefront of GOP politics regardless of her ultimate decision.

"Whether she runs or not, Palin needs to stay relevant in order to leverage her celebrity, influence and earning capacity," said Mark McKinnon, a Republican consultant who helped coach Palin when she was preparing for her vice presidential debate with Joe Biden in 2008. "She just proved that she still can generate crowds anytime she wants. Her machine just got oiled and taken out for a test drive."

McKinnon said that because of Palin's unique status — 100% name recognition and ability to raise money quickly — she could delay her decision longer than any other potential candidate. "And there's no downside to teasing the possibility just as long as possible," he said.

Republicans on the ground in the two earliest voting states agree.

"I do think she's being very smart, sort of helping to keep all her options open," said David Carney, a political consultant who is helping Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire. He has seen no evidence that she is organizing there, but said that if she chose to run, her effect on the race would be "huge."

From Iowa, Craig Robinson, founder and editor of the website the Iowa Republican, said that the timing of the bus tour was "perfect" as it kept her options open. It will also, he said, help promote the new Palin movie that is slated to open in Iowa next month.

Still, he warned, she can't skip the hard work involved in wooing caucusgoers.

"If this is a precursor to a presidential campaign, she will still have to do what the other candidates are doing in Iowa," Robinson said. "Going town to town and county to county, and to share her plans for America with the people of Iowa." Nothing can replace that, he said, "not even a bus tour or movie."

Indeed, Palin's effort had almost nothing in common with the sort of disciplined operation required to do well in the caucuses — or in primary states. Tuesday started in typical fashion: No schedule, no announcements, just Palin slipping out of her Gettysburg, Pa., hotel and away from her bus for a quiet sedan tour of the Civil War battlefield.

Later, back on the bus, Palin's entourage stepped out for some coffee in the town of Dillsburg, Pa. Palin joined a trio of customers at their table and chatted about economic policy and job creation. One of the men phoned his wife, and put her on with Palin, who promised to stay at Coffee Express until the wife arrived, which she did about five minutes later.

In the last two days, as she moved from Washington to Maryland to Pennsylvania, Palin has delighted in showing her knowledge of and interest in American history, if in a typically casual style.

When a customer announced that his birthday was Dec. 16, "which is the Boston Tea Party," Palin replied, "Awww. All right! Party like it's 1773."

After her visit with the coffee shop patrons, she said she didn't think it was appropriate to have a deadline for withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan.

"I've said along with Sen. McCain and so many others, the conditions on the ground need to dictate when our troops start coming home instead of having some kind of political decision being made.... We show the enemy our playbook — that doesn't make any sense. It's not good war strategy."

Palin's husband, Todd, in rare comments to reporters, said he was leaving the decision about whether to run for president to her.

"It's up to her what she decides to do," he said. "I am not pushing her either way. It's her decision. There are pros and cons, of course. But this country — we have to get back on the right track."

He also took issue with how his wife was depicted in the press: "People talk about, 'Oh, she just got plucked up out of Wasilla.' You need to look at her career."

Todd Palin also said he didn't think they would invite reporters aboard the bus for interviews, the way Sen. John McCain, Palin's 2008 running mate, did in his campaigns.

"It's a different scenario," he said. "She is employed by Fox." Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren is the only reporter who has been aboard the bus.

Sarah Palin's exclusive contract with Fox News — where she makes $1 million annually as a contributor in a three-year deal set to go through 2012 — prohibits her from appearing on other television networks. Fox News has said her status at the network remains unchanged — at least for now.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

Matea Gold and Paul West in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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