WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Love her or hate her, Sarah Palin was a phenomenon as the Republican vice presidential running mate to John McCain, and the question for the self-styled moose-hunting hockey mom is: What now?
Alaska Gov. Palin, plucked from obscurity and thrust on to the national stage to mixed reviews, was publicly cool to talk that she might have caught the presidential bug and seek to run against Democrat Barack Obama in 2012.
“I don’t know politically where in the world I’ll be then,” she told reporters on Wednesday in Phoenix.
But her interest in playing some kind of national role was evident from the words of McCain himself on Tuesday night in his concession speech after he was defeated by Obama.
“We can all look forward with great interest to her future service to Alaska, the Republican Party and our country,” he said.
Palin, 44, drew huge crowds on the campaign trail, bigger than McCain’s. She proved to be a powerful performer in stump speeches, energizing the Republican base.
But she was less effective in television interviews, botching a couple of early media encounters to the point that some prominent conservatives said she was too inexperienced to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Her folksy, “you betcha” style was both refreshing and grist for countless jokes on late-night television, giving a career boost to her actress doppelganger, Tina Fey of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
“She clearly has a future in national politics,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed. “She has to work to rebuild the parts of her image that became a caricature. But she’s extremely popular with the grassroots.”
“Palin needs to take some time back in Alaska and regroup with her day job. There’s plenty of time to plot and scheme after the Christmas holidays,” he said.
While Palin was selected by McCain in 2008, if she ran in 2012 she would compete against formidable members of her own party with their own visions like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Republican strategist Tony Fabrizio said Palin is not the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2012. He noted in particular some revelations uncovered by the news media during what amounted to a public vetting of her record once she was picked by McCain.
Her acceptance of thousands of dollars in daily travel expenses from the state while living at home and the Republican Party’s costly shopping spree to equip her and her family with designer clothing may come back to haunt her.
“She needs to go back home and face all of the stuff that’s been raked up in the presidential race. Voters in Alaska found out a lot of stuff about Sarah Palin that they didn’t know about Sarah Palin. She’s got to go back and get herself re-elected,” Fabrizio said.
Palin’s future may depend on how the Republican Party itself changes in response to its defeat.
Social conservatives who are warmest to Palin represent a dwindling minority in the party, which was rocked by the Obama victory and will now undergo a period of reflection and soul-searching about the future.
Palin was said to have little time for people who did not agree with her socially conservative views.
“If she wants to be a voice for a part of the new failed Republican Party, she’s going to have to broaden her appeal,” said a McCain staff member who asked not to be named.
Linda Fowler, a political science professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said a drop in oil prices could hit Alaska’s budget and make her job as governor much tougher, jeopardizing her high approval rating in the state.
“I think there will be a different environment for her in Alaska both because of the national exposure, which won’t necessarily be positive, and because the internal politics of the state will probably change,” she said.