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Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck in Alaska: testing the 2012 waters?

Neither Sarah Palin nor Glenn Beck is currently running for anything, but both are deftly navigating today's media landscape and having some success steering the national debate.

By Staff writer / September 13, 2010

Political commentator Glenn Beck appears with former Alaska governor Sarah Palin at an event in Anchorage, Alaska, on Saturday.

Michael Dinneen/AP

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Kingmaker, powerbroker, digital celebrity – by whatever name, and there have been many – Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin herald the dawn of a rising phenomenon. Their ability to use virtually every form of new and old media, from television to Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, to reach large audiences in the service of personal yet political messages is something new on the political landscape, say many political strategists and historians.

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This power to persuade by personal conviction without apparent elective ambition was on display yet again Saturday night. In a joint rally in Anchorage, Alaska, the two flirted with one another. Ms. Palin coyly asked, “You gonna run?” and Mr. Beck later said, “We would like to announce that in 2012 we will both be … voting.” While they breezed through a menu of top "tea party" issues, from God to the lack of moral leadership from the Obama administration, neither would lay claim to real political aspirations.

Such powerful “candidates without portfolio” are truly a creation of today’s hyper-media-saturated communication landscape, says branding expert Mark Stevens. “We’ve never had people as powerful as Beck and Palin who aren’t politicians with complete access to the entire country every day,” he says. “Who can we equate them to? Nobody,” he says. “It’s a unique phenomenon.”

While Palin ranked first in a July Gallup poll of top Republican presidential candidates, at 76 percent, her – and Beck’s – real motivations are less clear, says political scientist Stephen Medvic, author of the 2009 book “Campaigns/Elections: Players and Processes.” Running for president is much dirtier and less financially rewarding than what either of them is doing now, he notes.

“We saw back in 2004 that candidates such as Howard Dean could get a lot of attention with his ability to marshal social media, but ultimately it didn’t translate to the kind of traditional grass-roots organizing that will produce votes,” says Mr. Medvic. What’s going on now, he says, is that both Beck and Palin are exploring their ability to frame the debate and drive the issues for the election. The story will only be half over when all the various primaries are done, he says.

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