Sarah Palin wows CPAC. But has the race for the White House moved beyond her?

Sarah Palin energized the crowd of activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference Saturday. She has yet to endorse a GOP presidential candidate, which keeps her in the game.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sarah Palin, the GOP candidate for vice-president in 2008, and former Alaska governor, delivers the keynote address to activists from America's political right at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012.

As the wind-up speaker at this weekend’s CPAC gathering, Sarah Palin did what she’s always done best since her brief tour as the GOP’s vice presidential candidate four years ago: Cheer lead for conservative causes and candidates, needle Democrats and liberals, and keep herself positioned as a major voice in the Republican Party.

Before an enthusiastic crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Palin lit into President Obama across the board on issues – from the economy to environmental protection to national security

“His plan isn’t winning the future, it’s losing the country,” she said.

“The American people have woken up” to the dangers of big government, she said. “The conservative movement has never been stronger or brighter, yet the federal government has never cast a bigger shadow.”

What she did not do was endorse one of the four presidential rivals. That keeps her more securely in the game – someone to be wooed and treated deferentially.

If anything, judging by articulated positions, her “Mama Grizzly” status as a tea party darling, and the candidates she’s backed in statewide races, she would seem more inclined to favor Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum over Republican establishment favorite Mitt Romney. (Her husband Todd Palin already has endorsed Gingrich.)

She came to Gingrich’s defense when prominent Republican figures, including former Sen. Bob Dole, went after the former House Speaker

She’s sometimes rankled that party establishment, most recently when with her criticisms of “crony capitalism” and a “permanent political class.”

“The corruption isn't confined to one political party or just a few bad apples,” she wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column. “It's an endemic problem encompassing leadership on both sides of the aisle. It's an entire system of public servants feathering their own nests.”

As for Romney as her party’s presidential candidate, Palin has been lukewarm at best.

“That glowing enthusiasm isn't there yet,” Palin told Greta Van Susteren on Fox News this week. “I believe a lot of that is in part the idea that it's a foregone conclusion that Mitt Romney will be the GOP pick. He certainly has the establishment support and much of the media support. I also believe that he is the one that President Obama would love to debate and to run against in November.”

In the years since she and 2008 Republican ticket front-runner John McCain went their separate ways, Palin became a small industry – public speaker, author, reality TV star, Fox News commentator, and potential presidential candidate who made tons of money while tantalizing millions of tea party supporters around the country with suggestions that she might run this year.

But polls show most Americans (including most Republicans) don’t think she’s qualified to be president, and through 2011 until the present, her approval ratings continued to drop – down to 38 percent favorable and 56 percent unfavorable, according to one CNN survey.

Donations to her political action committee dropped sharply during the second half of 2011. “Palin’s relatively meager second half haul came despite heavy spending on fundraising and a bus tour that fanned speculation that she might seek the GOP presidential nomination,” Politico reported recently.
 And that slide from favor may eventually hurt her financially, particularly in her pitch for another “reality” TV show.

Hollywood Reporter put it this way recently:

“So far, networks have balked at the steep asking price…. Another obstacle is Palin’s waning status as a cultural lightning rod. The former Alaska governor burst onto the scene as the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate with a compelling personal storyline and outspoken conservatism that made her the darling of the right and a target of the left, helping her land a $1 million annual contract with Fox News.…. Says one network insider, ‘I think it’s safe to say her time has passed.’”

That certainly was not the case at CPAC Saturday, when thousands of conservatives crowded around after her speech, basking in the warmth of her political celebrity, agreeing whole-heartedly with the music being played: country singer Shania Twain’s “She’s Not Just a Pretty Face”

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