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CURL: Palin still isn’t afraid to ‘rage against the machine’

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

TAMPA, Fla. — Four years ago almost to the day, Sarah Palin became a megastar.

Overnight, she went from an obscure governor of a state 67 hours by car from the White House to the Republican Party's second in command, a power player who, very likely, could run for president in 2016 — and win the nomination.

But on the eve of Rep. Paul Ryan's nomination as Mitt Romney's running mate, Mrs. Palin was not in Tampa but instead on late-night Fox News, appearing from a remote location, perhaps her backyard in Scottsdale, Ariz., (which, if you're keeping track at home, is a 37-hour drive to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.).

Four years is a long time, so long it's almost hard to remember her debut, her coming out. She was spectacular: off-white, side-button jacket, black pencil skirt, strand of pearls, low hair down, and of course the stylin' glasses. The mainstream media mocked her for the line, "What's the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick," but her speech before 25,000 screaming supporters was substantive and succinct.

"Sudden and relentless reform never sits well with entrenched interests and power brokers. That's why true reform is so hard to achieve," she said, and, "If character is the measure in this election, and hope the theme, and change the goal we share, then I ask you to join our cause."

Unlike Mr. Ryan, who has been a player for 14 years, having first won a Capitol Hill office when he was just 28, Mrs. Palin was the governor of Alaska but a neophyte in Washington ways when nominated. Of course, she was badly handled (and heavily over-handled) by the McCain campaign, but she also quickly became a handful, hunkering down with just a few close aides, shutting out all others.

Her very best talent — chatting with people face-to-face in that Alaskan twang, disarming them, winning them over — was taken away by the campaign, which decided to send her straight to the national networks, a move that proved disastrous.

The aftermath of the loss by McCain-Palin was filled with vicious backbiting among campaign staff; aides whispered nasty things about Mrs. Palin, who, not surprisingly, got angry. More, though, she became disillusioned with party politics, the current state of the Republican Party. She emerged as a vocal critic of the less-than-conservative wing that had begun to assert control over the party, and she wasn't in the least shy about voicing her disenchantment.

In the kind of move only Mrs. Palin would pull, she did not wait quietly for the GOP to pick its presidential nominee. Instead, she backed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the primaries. "We need somebody who is engaged in sudden and relentless reform and isn't afraid to shake it up," she said. "Rage against the machine. Vote for Newt, annoy a liberal."

Her words were also targeted at that mostly moderate man from Massachusetts, Mr. Romney. As the primaries wore on, without regard to the fact that he appeared to be the inevitable nominee, she criticized him, saying, "I am not convinced, and I don't think that the majority of GOP and independent voters are convinced."

And she's stayed true to form to this day, demanding that the Republican Party return to its roots and support only truly conservative candidates, not RINOs. On Wednesday, working in support of a candidate in Arizona, she Facebooked: "We have to remember that this election is not just about replacing the party in power. It's about who and what we replace it with. Grassroots conservatives know this. Without the energy and wisdom of the grassroots, the GOP would not have had the historic 2010 electoral victories."

Thus, she has stayed inside the party, but she's moved to the fringe, or been marginalized, or worse, abandoned and forgotten. And that is partly her own fault: She quit as governor and mostly disappeared, making bank from her Fox News hits and speaking gigs — a glorified talking head. What's more, she is now far from power; other players, like Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Scott Walker, are busy governing, fighting the good fight from inside and winning.

As Republicans from across the country gather tonight to celebrate the party of 2012, Mrs. Palin is alone tonight celebrating the party of Lincoln, and of Reagan. She's "raging against the machine" that is the Establishment, with no regard to the cost.

But though she appears down and out, she may find herself a powerful party leader in 2016. Consider this: The Establishment picked moderate "maverick" John McCain in 2008, rejecting a far more conservative candidate, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Mr. McCain got hammered, losing 365-173 in the Electoral College.

Again this time, the party powers bypassed conservative candidates to pick another moderate in Mr. Romney — despite the rising strength of the tea party and the growing frustration with business as usual. Should Mr. Romney lose, a second moderate loss in a row, the Republican Party will be forced to rethink its future: continue to seek the center and hope for the best, or return to the conservatism that propelled Ronald Reagan into office — and changed America forever.

Come 2016, GOP might just stand for "GOPalin!"

Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at jcurl@washingtontimes.com.

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