Sarah Palin can be the Republican nominee in 2012. I am not saying she will be, but she can be.
Those who underestimate her do so at their own risk. She projects a tough but warm personality. Her most famous line — “You know what they say the difference is between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick!” — reflects that. She is a conservative in an increasingly conservative party.
And though the McCain-Palin ticket went down to defeat in 2008, she has not faded away. In fact, she showed last week how easy it is for her to dominate the news cycle.
She attacked David Letterman last Wednesday for making what she called a “crude, sexist, perverted” joke about her daughter, and by Friday she was being interviewed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and spending far more time talking about energy policy, the deficit, Israel and North Korea than about David Letterman.
There is little doubt that Obama is the most popular politician in America (and probably the world). Yet when voters were asked last week in a Diageo/Hotline poll if they would reelect Obama today or would like to see “someone else” be elected president, Obama got 46 percent, and “someone else” got 30 percent. That’s a nice margin for Obama, but it’s not astronomical.
And someone has to run against him in 2012, if only for the sake of tradition. (We haven’t had a presidential candidate run unopposed since George Washington did it in 1789 and 1792.)
That someone could be Sarah Palin, if she does seven things right now:
1. DUMP ALASKA. She doesn’t need to run for reelection for governor in 2010 for name recognition or to get media attention. And being a governor these days is like having a target on your back. (Republican Tim Pawlenty, who has his own plans for 2012, announced earlier this month that he will not seek election to a third term as governor of Minnesota.) But there is a bigger reason for Palin to give up the governorship: Maybe you can see Russia from Alaska, but you can’t see Iowa and New Hampshire from Alaska. Alaska is too far away from where she needs to be. She can live, skimobile and hunt moose in Alaska, but she needs to spend a lot of travel time in the Lower 48 without having to run back to Juneau every week.
2. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE SMARTER THAN YOU ARE. That shouldn’t be hard, her opponents will say. OK, let them laugh. They laughed at George W. Bush when he ran for president in 2000 and at Arnold Schwarzenegger when he ran for governor of California in 2003. Both benefited from low expectations and smart staffs.
I am not one of those people who believe that staffs win or lose elections — candidates win or lose elections — but the Democratic presidential race in 2008 certainly demonstrated the difference that staffs can make. Hillary Clinton assembled a staff of loyal people who were largely inexperienced in presidential campaigning. Barack Obama assembled a staff of loyal people who were very experienced in presidential campaigning. It made a difference.
3. PICK A HANDFUL OF ISSUES AND STICK TO THEM. The increase in the size of government? The increase in the deficit? The increase in the role of Washington in people’s lives? All good issues for Republican primary voters. And all three are things Palin talks about already. And she shouldn’t worry if she gets attacked for being naive or simplistic. Ronald Reagan got pretty far with: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”
4. STUDY UP. Before CBS’s Katie Couric and ABC’s Charlie Gibson flew to Alaska to interview Palin, they studied hard, backed up by excellent research staffs that prepared a lot of material for them. Palin has to do the same before major interviews. While she is not bad at answering direct questions, she falls down on followup questions. She has to do what successful candidates do: Rehearse. The rule is that you have to study at least as hard as the people trying to trip you up.
5. DON’T BELIEVE YOU CAN’T DO IT. Palin’s critics point out that she is no Ronald Reagan, and that in tough times, voters are going to turn to potential candidates like Mitt Romney, who stress competence. But Palin has a chance because of what the Republican Party has become: a smaller, more conservative party that has already driven away many moderates and “soft” Republicans. The Republican Party today is like a star that has gone nova and collapsed to its densest core. While some potential nominees will try to sell a big-tent message, demanding that the party moderate its positions to win more voters, primaries are usually dominated by hard-core activists. This is where Palin has the potential to do well.
6. DON’T GO CHANGING. In her debate with Joe Biden, she did far better than most expected by being warm and passionate and by using everyday language like “I betcha” and “heckuva opportunity” and “darn right.” She even winked. It didn’t make her look dumb; it made her look human. She should not be afraid to stick with what has gotten her this far. She showed last week she is not afraid to be a mom standing up for her kid. But she also should not be afraid to take some risks and go back on “Saturday Night Live.” She should not be afraid to make fun of herself, even if plenty of others already are.
7. DON’T WORRY ABOUT FAILURE. Heck, there’s always 2016.
Roger Simon is POLITICO’s chief political columnist.