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Sarah Palin turning into a media superstar

Sarah Palin
Sarah Palin
Ron Edmonds, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Without leaving home, Sarah Palin will be able to reach much of her political base, courtesy of a soon-to-be be built television studio in her living room paid for by her newest media patron, Fox News. From her house in Wasilla, Alaska, Palin also sends missives to 1.3 million Facebook "fans," writes newspaper columns, Tweets and signs copies of her book for donors.

She reads daily e-mail briefings on domestic and foreign policy from a small group of advisers who remained loyal after her tumultuous vice presidential campaign in 2008. And though she has fashioned an image as an anti-establishment conservative, Palin also speaks regularly to a bipartisan nobility of Washington insiders who have helped enrich her financially and position her on the national political stage.

Palin is becoming increasingly vocal and visible. This weekend she delivered a paid speech to the Salina, Kan., Chamber of Commerce on Friday; is headlining the Tea Party convention in Nashville on Saturday; and appearing on behalf of the re-election campaign of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas in Houston on Sunday.

This latest foray "Outside" (Alaskan slang for the "Lower 48") culminates a week in which she achieved a typical run of multimedia ubiquity: She e-mailed a high-profile endorsement of Dr. Rand Paul in a Republican Senate primary in Kentucky. She called — via Facebook — for the resignation of the White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel for using the term "retarded" and announced — via a column in USA Today — that she would attend a Tea Party gathering next month in Searchlight, Nev., the hometown of the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid.

Her growing cast of advisers and support system could be working in the service of any number of goals: a possible presidential run, a de facto role as the leader of the tea party movement or a lucrative career as a roving media entity — or all of the above.

Palin represents a new breed of unelected public official operating in an environment in which politics, news media and celebrity sometimes seem to fuse. Whether she ever runs for anything else, Palin has already achieved the status that has become an end in itself: access to an electronic bully pulpit, a staff to guide her, an enormous income and none of the bother or accountability of having to govern or campaign for office.

"Few public figures not in office have leveraged the nexus between media and political positioning as Sarah Palin has," said one of her Washington-based advisers, the lawyer Robert Barnett (who negotiated, among other things, Palin's lucrative deal with Fox News, an arrangement with the Washington Speakers' Bureau that pays her a reported $100,000 a pop, and a deal with Harper Collins to write her memoir, "Going Rogue," which has already earned her upwards of eight figures).

Beyond what her Fox-watchers and Facebookers can see, Palin is quietly assembling the infrastructure of an expanding political operation. In addition to her longtime spokeswoman, Meghan Stapleton, Palin's closest aides include members of her former running mate's staff. Her current operations chief, Jason Recher, was a loyal lieutenant on Palin's campaign plane — loyal to a point where some top McCain aides believed he was encouraging Palin's "rogue" behavior. (According to internal campaign e-mail messages provided by a former top McCain aide, campaign officials considered firing Recher in October 2008 over "unacceptable" and "unprofessional" conduct during a rough swing through New Hampshire and Maine.)

"I wouldn't exactly call it a badge of honor to be thought of negatively by some of these people," Recher said. "But the bottom line is, I was incredibly proud to serve John McCain, and I couldn't be happier to be part of Sarah Palin's world now."

Randy Scheunemann, a foreign-policy adviser to McCain who also clashed with the campaign leadership, received $30,000 from Palin's PAC in the second half of 2009. He helped write a speech for Palin in Hong Kong last September and also contributes to a daily briefing prepared by Kim Daniels, a Maryland lawyer who did legal work in Alaska for the McCain campaign. (She is now advising Palin on domestic policy issues and received $21,000 from SarahPAC in the second half of 2009.)

People with knowledge of the daily briefings say they are conducted by phone or e-mail. They typically include information on that day's news, material that could be relevant to an upcoming speech or guidance about a candidate Palin might be thinking of endorsing. Daniels and Scheunemann are known as exceedingly conservative, in keeping with what many Palin-watchers have viewed as her steady move to the right.

"She used to be a moderate Republican in Alaska, but I think all of these attacks have hardened her and made her absolutely more conservative," said John Coale, a Washington lawyer and longtime Democratic fundraiser who helped Palin set up her political action committee.

Coale, the husband of the Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, said that crowds who swarmed Palin's campaign and book events have provided comfort in the midst of so much criticism

"I think there have been times during all the attacks when she thought, 'This is just too much,'" Coale said. "But now I think it all makes her more determined. Whatever she's doing now, it feels like a calling to her."

Along with her paid advisers, Palin has also been in regular contact with a kitchen cabinet of Washington power-brokers: Coale; Barnett, a Democrat, on business and media decisions; and Fred Malek, a former aide to presidents Richard M. Nixon and the George H.W. Bush, on political matters.

When asked by The New York Times for others to speak to about Palin, Stapleton mentioned the Republican media adviser Mary Matalin (who has been in sporadic contact with Palin's camp) and Dana Perino, the former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush (who barely seemed to know her).

As she jumps more into the political fray, Palin is proving as divisive a figure within Republican circles as she was within the fractious McCain campaign.

On Friday, as she prepared to speak in Kansas, she was dealing with an Associated Press report that she had not paid property taxes on two cabins that she partially owned in Alaska. Her scheduled appearance in Nashville on Saturday incited cries of "sellout" from other Tea Party factions who objected to the high cost of tickets to the event ($549). Many of her "establishment" supporters were confounded by her decision to endorse Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a former libertarian presidential aspirant. Paul is facing Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson in a primary.

"I'm disappointed by her endorsement of Paul," said William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and one of the conservatives credited with "discovering" Palin as a rising star in 2006. "But they always disappoint you."

Republican candidates have alternately pleaded for her support and avoided her like frostbite. Rep. Roy Blunt, a Republican Senate candidate in Missouri, has lobbied for Palin to appear on his behalf (to no avail, so far), whereas Scott Brown, the new Republican senator from Massachusetts, claimed he had never spoken to her before later acknowledging that an election night phone call from Palin had "slipped his mind."

In some ways, Palin-watchers say, the question of Palin's ambitions and abilities remain as much a mystery now as when she first stormed the national consciousness 18 months ago. They warn against any notion that she has any grand plan beside keeping faith that God would help her recognize "the next open door" (a favorite Palin refrain).

"I think if Sarah has a passion, it's that she really believes that there is a silent majority out there that she wants the folks in Washington to know about," said Kristan Cole, a friend in Wasilla.

Palin, who declined to comment for this article, is scarcely seen around Wasilla these days, said residents of the so-called Duct Tape Capital of the World. And since leaving office early last year, she is silent on state political matters.

"She has expanded her house and turned it into a compound," said Rebecca Braun, who edits the nonpartisan Alaska Budget Report. "She is basically invisible in Alaska but as big a celebrity as Princess Di everywhere else."