Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has won millions of admirers with her gift for direct, personal communication. Her appeal combines an earnest and urgent seriousness with a bright and winning air of spontaneity. And the governor was working each of these elements extra hard at her hastily arranged news conference Friday.
She needed to, because she had a difficult message to deliver and an even more difficult rationale to sell.
Few were surprised to hear that the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president (and likely contender for president in 2012) had decided not to seek re-election as governor in 2010. But the blockbuster came a few seconds later, with the second part of her announcement.
With what appeared to be a smile of delight, she began explaining why she would not "go with the flow" and complete her term in office. It would be the easy way out to serve as a "lame duck," she said, and she was not that sort of person. She wasn't a quitter. And so, she said, she had decided to ... quit.
This leaves two paths ahead for Palin, who will leave office in three weeks.
Choice One: She can go home to Wasilla and try to remake the life she had there before politics (or at least statewide and national politics) blew it up. This might have the much-to-be-desired effect of removing her from the late-night comedians' hit list, the incessant tabloid chatter and the endless round of recriminations with John McCain's 2008 campaign team. Just this week, Palin had won the dubious distinction of being named "Sitting Duck" of the year by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
Choice Two: She can stop worrying about the intricacies of the Alaska budget and the internal squabblings of the Legislature in Juneau and concentrate on putting together a campaign for 2012. After all, she is one of the three Republicans mentioned most often as her party's preferred candidates for Next Time (along with Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who both ran in 2008). Among Republican primary voters, she had the highest personal approval rating of any 2012 Republican prospect in a recent Pew Research Center poll, and it was over 70 percent.
So Sarah Palin is a player for 2012. And when that is true, a politician nearly always views all other elements of Creation through that presidential lens. When viewed through that lens, being governor of Alaska has done Palin as much good as it's likely to do. The governorship has already proven far more difficult in her third year than it was in her first two, when she gathered in the low-hanging fruit. This year, her star power turned against her and engendered resentment.
In recent months she has battled legislators, including those in her own party, preferring to vilify them rather than negotiate with them on the budget and other challenges. Her once stratospheric approval rating in statewide polls has slipped, and re-election in 2010, while still likely, would not have been a waltz. Needless to say, even a hard-won re-election victory in 2010 would have weakened her momentum in terms of the Republican presidential sweepstakes in 2012.
So it was widely expected she would find a time to bow out as a candidate in 2010. There's no sin in leaving a governorship after one term; in fact, the Commonwealth of Virginia only allows one term.
But Palin has raised a world of new questions by deciding to limit herself to far less than one term. She will have 17 months to go on her contract when she resigns. Some may be satisfied with the explanation she offered on Friday, that finishing her term would be "politics as usual" and a self-indulgence. She said it was time to "pass the ball so the team can win." Maybe that's all there is to it.
Others will suspect the governor is so focused now on 2012 that she believes she must devote herself to it whole-heartedly, even at the cost of her mission in Alaska and her implicit pledge to serve Alaskans.
What is so pressing? She needs time to build a staff that is loyal to her alone, as we can see from the endless replays of the internal wars of the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008 in Vanity Fair and Politico this past week. She must show she can raise tens of millions of dollars before the primaries, and hundreds of millions after that. And most desperately, she has to develop a more resilient media sensibility that can turn both fawning and savaging attention to her purpose.
Assuming the soon-to-be-former governor wants all this, and has prepared herself for the sacrifices ahead, she is making a hard-headed decision to reach for the brass ring and to do it now.