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Analysis: Celebrity, yes, but can Palin be more?

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is greeted at a Republican Party fund-raising dinner in North Little Rock, Ark., Feb. 16, 2010.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is greeted at a Republican Party fund-raising dinner in North Little Rock, Ark., Feb. 16, 2010.
Danny Johnston, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Sarah Palin lacks many of the traits of a typical American presidential candidate. She's unconventional, unpredictable and, to hear some tell it, unprepared.

What she has, though, is potent: an enormous dose of celebrity, striking good looks, an ability to captivate America with witty one-line zingers. And above all, a constantly developing story line tailor-made for a drama-hungry culture of 24/7 media and instantaneous Twitter updates.

A half century ago, historian Daniel J. Boorstin described a celebrity as "a person who is known for his well-knownness." Some would dismiss Palin that way. But she's shown staying power.

A year and a half after her vice-presidential nomination and a year before the next presidential race begins in earnest, she spoke and acted like a national political figure at the recent "tea party" convention. And she was treated like one, too.

Could she become a serious contender for the White House?

At a time when the distance between obscurity and celebrity is shrinking, the journey between celebrity and the White House may be growing shorter as well. That's why, no matter how unconventional she is, Palin can't be counted out as a credible 2012 competitor — even if it's difficult to see her path to the presidency.

We can't say Palin is a creation of the media; John McCain put her on the national map when he named her his running mate in 2008. We can't say conservatives are pushing her to the front; there's deep division within the GOP over whether she is ready to be president. We can't even say that she's a certain White House candidate; she says it'd be absurd to close that door, but there's no guarantee she'll walk through it.

But at a time when the GOP lacks a leader, Palin is a phenomenon who occupies a unique space in the political discourse of a society that feeds on fame. And as long as she's coy about her future, Palin will remain a political force simply because people won't stop paying attention.

So is it Sarah Palin, political celebrity? Or Sarah Palin, serious contender?

"She could be both, but we just don't know yet," said Eric Dezenhall, an image consultant who has worked with everyone from Hollywood stars to business moguls. "These days, the political leaders who make it have both the celebrity and they have the capacity to lead."

That's the big unknown about Palin, who resigned as Alaska governor last summer after just 2 1/2 years at the helm.

Any speculation about a possible President Palin raises a broader question: Is this country moving toward an era when it picks interesting figures over people with traditional political careers and governing skills — an epoch where sudden fame trumps Capitol Hill?

If so, it's been a long time coming. The line between celebrity and politician has been blurring for more than a generation.

B-movie actor Ronald Reagan parlayed his fame into the California governor's mansion, then the presidency. And think Minnesota: Its voters sent pro wrestler Jesse Ventura to the governor's office and "Saturday Night Live" comedian Al Franken to the Senate.

Today, fame arrives in American homes almost instantly. With the ascent of Internet sites like YouTube and the boom of reality TV shows, anyone from British singer Susan Boyle to the cast of "Jersey Shore" can claim their 15 minutes.

The public's attention span, though sometimes short, can be intense, making the future less certain for celebrities who aspire to political office without established, quantifiable skills.

"We have democratized celebrity," said Darrell West, co-author of "Celebrity Politics." "And it's a very personal era in which we live. We want to know everything about everyone."

In such an environment, he says, "Political leaders have the potential to be celebrities, but not every celebrity has the potential to be a political leader."

That's where Palin comes in. She finds herself on the cusp of trying to figure out which mold she fits.

She was largely unknown nationally when McCain plucked her from Alaska and she turned into an overnight sensation. Before long, she was packing stadiums with fans from coast to coast and energizing the GOP's conservative base.

Since the Republican ticket lost, she's become a $100,000 attraction on the speaking circuit and a best-selling author with her memoir. She and her family have been the constant subjects of supermarket tabloids, most notably over her feud with her grandchild's daddy. She has signed on as a Fox News analyst and has fired broadsides against President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats on her Facebook page.

Palin also has tapped into antiestablishment, populist anger brewing in the right wing of the Republican Party over a perceived erosion of individual freedoms and loss of conservative principles.

She electrified disciples at the national "tea party" convention in Tennessee with a speech filled with potshots at the president. She became the butt of late-night TV jokes when she appeared to read notes written on her hand while answering questions; her backers rushed to defend her.

But her fans, while passionate, are a sliver of the diverse coalition of Republicans she'd need to claim the GOP nomination, let alone a general election against a popular incumbent Democrat — one who's a major celebrity in his own right. And her political standing, once strong, has deteriorated.

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that 50 percent of the people surveyed had an unfavorable opinion of her, while 45 percent viewed her favorably. Perhaps even worse: A Washington Post-ABC News poll found more than 70 percent of people — and a majority of Republicans — saw her as unqualified to be president.

Which comes back to the original question. Can Palin the celebrity become Palin the contender by turning her ideological fans into a true political base and targeting the government's top job? Will she even try?

The media and the public will pay attention to every move she makes between now and when she makes a decision. Right now, by the standards of Tabloid America, this is one celebrity whose story is too good to put down.

EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.