- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2009

Teen pregnancy, drug charges, burglary arrests. Appearances on the “Tyra Banks Show” that resembled a Jerry Springer segment. Charges of being publicity hounds and not paying for the diapers.

The family foibles continue to play out in tabloid fashion for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, adding unwelcome public drama for the former vice-presidential nominee as she seeks to solidify her clout within a Republican Party that is smarting from the November election and sorely in need of a leader.

While analysts from outside the political world agree that tabloid feuding is not the way to stay in the headlines, they say the publicity could either turn Mrs. Palin into a politically irrelevant Tina Fey punch line or prompt a backlash from her supporters who’d see class prejudice at play.

“It’s been an embarrassing week for [Mrs. Palin] and seems like a train wreck in slow motion,” said Robert Watson, a professor of American Studies and presidential historian at Florida’s Lynn University. “In politics, perception is reality … and all of this feeds into the very ugly caricature of her on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ which has been exploited and will continue to be. It seems to me that if it doesn’t stop soon, I think it could eventually turn into a major political liability.”

Allison Kasic of the Independent Women’s Forum agreed that Mrs. Palin’s family issues are distractions but said they will have little long-term impact on her political credibility.

“In the digital age, in the 24-hour news cycle, pretty much all politicians have a lot of dirty laundry aired, and now we get to see it all,” she said. “Certainly, a politician having dramatic family issues is not new. And I think for every snide comment out there in the media, you often see this have a reverse effect. The more people tend to criticize her, the more people tend to like her and rally behind her.”

But when The Washington Times contacted leading Republican Party officials and campaign strategists for comment on how Mrs. Palin’s family troubles might affect her political fortunes, none was willing to be quoted on the subject.

“This isn’t something we want to comment on,” said one in a deadpan manner.

The latest round in the Sarah Palin political celebrity saga began last week. The former fiance of Mrs. Palin’s daughter Bristol, Levi Johnston, along with his mother and sister, exceeded some people’s bounds of candor and taste when they discussed his sexual relationship with Miss Palin on “The Tyra Banks Show.”

The details included Mr. Johnston’s assertion - quickly denounced as untrue - that Mrs. Palin allowed him to live at her home and knew that he was sexually involved with Miss Palin, who gave birth to their son, Tripp, on Dec. 27. Mr. Johnston, 19, and Miss Palin, 18, called off their engagement last month, and the details of their split were confirmed in headlines.

The Banks interview has prompted more than a week of tabloid-ready, family-feuding rebuttals and rejoinders, playing out on TMZ and other show-business programs, the latest in a series of family woes that included a drug arrest in Mr. Johnston’s family and burglary charges against Mrs. Palin’s sister-in-law.

In the latest twist, Mrs. Palin’s father accused Mr. Johnston in Us Weekly of being a deadbeat dad. In the issue that reaches newsstands Friday, Chuck Heath accused the unemployed Mr. Johnston of capitalizing on national interviews but not supporting Tripp. He said Mr. Johnston should “take some of this money he’s making and buy some diapers with it.”

Mr. Johnston has said he wasn’t paid for appearances on national television last week.

Still, top officials in both parties have been steering clear. The only comments Republicans were willing to make on the record amounted to general praise for Mrs. Palin as one of the party’s leading figures and as a strong contender for the party’s 2012 presidential nomination.

“She has so many assets: a government executive, a proven voter-getter and a role model to young professional women who will be of paramount importance to the national Republican Party in future elections. She’s not someone who is easily marginalized and dismissed,” said Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state and a recent candidate for Republican National Committee chairman.

Even Democrats are staying away from turning Mrs. Palin’s family turmoil into a political issue.

“Thanks for your question, but we’re not going to comment on this matter,” Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said.

Mrs. Palin remains especially popular with the party’s social conservative base and keeps a lengthy schedule of speaking appearances across the country. Pro-life groups in particular embraced Mrs. Palin, in part because of her biography: She knowingly gave birth to a baby with Down syndrome in an era when most such children are aborted.

They also stood by her when her daughter’s pregnancy came to light almost simultaneously with Mrs. Palin’s selection as the running mate of Republican presidential candidate John McCain. The two teens said they would wed eventually and vowed to raise their son together, even as they acknowledged it would be difficult. Many pro-lifers praised the decision, saying it was more responsible and moral than aborting an unplanned pregnancy.

A little more than a week before the baby was born, however, the Palins found themselves in the headlines once again when Mr. Johnston’s mother, Sherry Johnston, 42, was arrested on six felony drug counts after state troopers served a search warrant on her Wasilla home. The charges included marijuana and OxyContin possession.

Unsavory headlines were made earlier this month when sister-in-law Diana Palin was charged with felony burglary and misdemeanor theft and criminal trespassing. She was accused of burglarizing a home twice and taking as much as $2,600.

The governor has yet to comment on the matter, which was reported initially by the Anchorage Daily News.

The Palins have, however, responded to Mr. Johnston’s comments on the “Tyra Banks Show.”

“We’re disappointed that Levi and his family, in a quest for fame, attention and fortune, are engaging in flat-out lies, gross exaggeration, and even distortion of their relationship,” said Meghan Stapleton, a spokeswoman for the governor’s new political action committee, SarahPAC.

“Bristol’s focus will remain on raising Tripp, completing her education, and advocating abstinence. It is unfortunate that Levi finds it more appealing to exploit his previous relationship with Bristol than to contribute to the well-being of the child. Bristol realizes now that she made a mistake in her relationship and is the one taking responsibility for their actions,” Ms. Stapleton said.

Just days later, Mr. Johnston appeared on CBS’ “The Early Show” to denounce the Palin family’s claims, accuse the Palins of limiting his time with Tripp, and denounce them as “lying” about whether he had lived with Miss Palin.

“They said I didn’t live there,” he said. “[They say] I ‘stayed’ there. I was like, ‘OK, whatever you want to call it’ - I had all my stuff there. So, if you wanna call it staying there, that’s fine.”

Mr. Johnston also said he was “not trying to cash in on their name,” but rather “just trying to get my side of the story out there. Letting people know who I am.”

When asked what was the biggest misconception about him, Mr. Johnston answered, “Probably that my family’s white trash.”

While the tabloid attention is definitely unwelcome, Mrs. Palin has plenty of time to recover or just wait it out.

“This could be old news in a year or two - nobody is really focusing on 2012 yet,” Mr. Watson said, though he cautioned that “it seems to me that this isn’t the last of this.”

“If Governor Palin runs for president in 2012,” Miss Kasic said, “I think voters will decide to vote for her based on what she has done for Alaska and what she plans to do for the country. I don’t think most people make voting decisions based on someone’s personal life.”

• Donald Lambro contributed to this report.