Sarah Palin bus tour: What's the point?

Sarah Palin stopped Tuesday at the Civil War battle site in Gettysburg, Pa. Her 'One Nation' bus tour is a type of almost-campaigning that could play to her political advantage. Here's how.

Alex Brandon/AP
Sarah Palin, former GOP vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor, with her daughter Piper (c.) answers a reporter's question at the beginning of Rolling Thunder at the Pentagon, on Sunday, May 29, during the Memorial Day weekend in Washington.

Sarah Palin has been spotted: She and her “One Nation” bus tour stopped at the site of the Civil War’s pivotal Battle of Gettysburg on Tuesday morning. We know this because her Sarah PAC website now has a nice photo of her gazing over Gettysburg’s historic Pennsylvania meadows. It must have been early in the morning, because she doesn’t look hot. As Ms. Palin discovered yesterday at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, temperatures in the mid-Atlantic have been hitting 95 degrees by midafternoon.

Where’s she going next? We’re not really sure. She’s not releasing a schedule or telling the "lamestream" press much of anything. But Philadelphia is a likely stop, to see the Liberty Bell and perhaps Independence Hall.

If Palin is not courting press coverage, and doesn’t even say where she’s bound, what’s the point of this bus tour, anyway? It’s a slightly odd way to kick off a presidential campaign, if that is what she’s doing. But Palin, for all her “Going Rogue” image, has some pretty blue-chip advisers, so we’re betting some thought has gone into the bus-tour concept.

Here are some reasons it’s a type of almost-campaigning that could play to her advantage.

She controls the message. If there were reporters at every stop, they would ask questions – and file stories based on answers. This coverage might or might not focus on what Palin wants to convey. But by showing up at historic sites just like any other visitor, Palin controls the imagery of the day. Look at the Sarah PAC bus tour page – it’s nothing but Palin and symbols of US greatness, pictured side by side: Palin signing Mount Vernon’s guestbook. Palin reading the Constitution. And so on. Those images are perhaps Palin’s message – she ’s the maybe-candidate most conversant with the nation’s heritage.

The stops appeal to her voters. You’ll notice that Palin isn’t stopping at factories to promote the strength of the American economy. Her bus is pulling up to national parks and other places connected with the US past. Perhaps that is because history reminds us of the moral choices made at times of struggle by those who shaped our nation. That’s the sort of thing that her core voters are interested in.

According to a new Gallup poll, Sarah Palin is the first choice for president among Republican voters who say the most important issues facing the nation are social issues and moral values. She wins a plurality of 23 percent among such voters; Mitt Romney is second, at 18 percent.

Mr. Romney, on the other hand, leads among voters who have economic concerns. (That’s why he spends a lot of time campaigning in factories.) He’s the first pick of GOP adherents who say government spending is the nation’s biggest problem, and of those who say the overall economy should be the top US priority. Palin lags behind among these voters.

So by examining the crack in the Liberty Bell Palin may be engaging in a basic rule of politics: First, solidify your standing among your base, then expand.

Bus touring might soften her image. Palin is a polarizing political figure, with adherents who love her and critics who love to dislike her. This is true to a certain extent even among GOP voters. Her unfavorable rating among Republicans is about 30 percent, noted New York Times polling expert Nate Silver earlier this spring. That’s a pretty high figure for a politician’s own party.

If she runs for president, she will have to do something to win over some people who now are set against her. Her bus tour, seen in that context, is noncontroversial campaigning. She’s not making inflammatory remarks. It’s just Palin and her family, on the road together in a giant RV, going where the road takes them.

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