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Palin's resignation hardly a curtain call

  • Story Highlights
  • Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin stepping down from office on Sunday
  • In the year since her national debut, she's become a polarizing figure in the GOP
  • People are drawn to -- and threatened by -- her potential, image consultant says
  • Palin is beginning her career as a national celebrity, columnist Michael Carey says
By Kristi Keck
CNN
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(CNN) -- Last August, then-Republican presidential nominee John McCain introduced to the nation his surprise pick for vice president, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has a strong base of supporters, as well as a steady supply of vocal critics.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has a strong base of supporters, as well as a steady supply of vocal critics.

At the time, little was known about the fresh-faced, first-term governor, but within days, Palin's face was on newspapers, magazines and tabloids.

Since then, Palin has become a polarizing figure in the Republican Party. Her passionate supporters are countered with equally fervent critics.

And even though it's been nearly a year since she ventured onto the national stage and more than eight months since the Republican ticket lost the election, as Palin prepares to leave office, the public's interest in her has yet to wane. Palin explains why she's stepping down

"She's kind of a shooting star that caught fire and kept burning," said Lorenzo Benet, an assistant editor for People magazine and author of "Trailblazer: An Intimate Biography of Sarah Palin."

"When she walks into a room, she definitely commands attention and she gets more than most. She's definitely a star," said Benet, who was the only national journalist to have spent much time with Palin in the weeks before she was announced as McCain's running mate.

Palin, a mother of five, "caught the imagination" of the public because there is no one else like her, Benet said. "Particularly for conservative America, there hasn't been a rallying figure of this type," he noted.

In the days leading up to Palin's debut speech at the Republican National Convention last September, Palin revealed that her 17-year-old daughter Bristol was pregnant. The announcement followed Internet rumors that Sarah Palin's 4-month-old baby was actually Bristol's.

The instant fascination with Palin and her family was just a glimpse of what was to come. The public wanted to know everything it could about the Alaska governor, whose resume also included beauty queen, high school basketball star, TV sportcaster and mayor of the small Alaska town of Wasilla.

Amid all the rumors and negative press, Palin showed herself to be a fierce attack dog and came out throwing punches in her speech at the RNC.

The self-described "hockey mom" tore into then-candidate Barack Obama as two-faced, inexperienced and intoxicated by the sound of his own voice. Even her critics recognized the spirit she brought to the GOP.

Palin continued to throw flames on the campaign trail, energizing her supporters and outraging her adversaries.

"She yelled fire in a crowded theater. She really did, in some of her speeches --'palling around' with terrorists and some of the other slurs she was hurling in the way of Obama and the Democrats," said Larry Persily, a former Palin staffer and Alaskan journalist.

"That turned off an equally big chunk of the American public that found it distasteful, destructive, divisive, mean and ignorant. Whereas others said, 'Way to go girl. You stick it to them," he said.

But Palin hasn't always been such a divisive figure. Before entering the national scene, Palin, who knocked out incumbent Republican Frank Murkowski in the gubernatorial primary, was touted as one of the most popular governors in the country, with approval ratings nearing 90 percent. She was seen as a champion of ethics, determined to root out corruption and challenge the status quo.

For those in Alaska, Palin's Reaganesque appeal was nothing new. She secured her role as a local hero back in 1982 when she led Wasilla High School's basketball team to a state championship. And in a small community like Wasilla, that was a big deal.

Alaskans liked her "combativeness and feistiness," Benet said, and resurrected her nickname of "Barracuda" during her successful 1996 campaign to be Wasilla's mayor.

But when Palin's "Barracuda" side hit the national stage, it was met with mixed reactions. Evangelia Souris, the president of Optimum International Center for Image Management, says Palin's potential is the driving force behind the public's love-hate relationship with her.

"That's what people are drawn to, and that's what actually threatens others. She definitely has the power to shake up a lot of old-school institutions." said Souris, who has advised politicians.

Furthermore, Souris said, "I just don't think people were ready for somebody so attractive and so fashionable and so hip to actually be campaigning. She falls out of the norm," Souris added.

But despite grumblings from some that they're sick of hearing about her, stories about her continue to get a lot of attention. Benet said People magazine follows two politicians: "One is Obama, and one is Sarah Palin -- and then there's everybody else."

From being dogged by ethics complaints, to her public fight with Levi Johnston (the father of her grandson and ex-fiance of her daughter), to her recent announcement that she's resigning this week as governor, Palin has maintained a steady presence in the public eye since stepping off the campaign trail.

Michael Carey, a columnist with the Anchorage Daily News, says Palin stirs excitement -- and hostility -- because "people want to see her even if they don't like her." He likens the public's interest with her to "drinking on the sly." People say, "I don't want to do this, I know I shouldn't, but I do it anyway," he said.

Some people love Palin, Persily said, because they can relate to her. "I think much of America said, 'Oh gee look at her, she's just like us. Kind of dumb on some things, kind of smart on others. Imperfect. And not at all embarrassed to show all of her imperfections.'"

But others saw her imperfections as inadequacies. "She's simplistic. Some people love the simplistic approach to problems. Others shake their heads and say, 'My God, you don't get it.'" Persily added.

Opponents have been quick to question Palin's intellectual chops, pointing to her spotty college career. Palin attended five colleges, graduating from the University of Idaho with a communications degree in 1987. A series of botched national interviews didn't do much to disprove their point.

But even Palin's critics admire her ability to connect with the people, Benet said.

"I don't think I've ever really met anyone like that, except maybe Bill Clinton, that will have that interpersonal eye contact with you and will remember your name and your kids' names, and make small talk with you and be really sincere about it," he said.

Benet predicted that while Palin might take a short break to recoup once she hands off power on Sunday, "she'll be back in the public eye."

"I do see her turning this to her advantage," he said, noting that she's made a similar move before.

In 2004, Palin stepped down as chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission after less than a year on the job, amid controversy over ethics allegations against another committee member. She turned that move around and used it as a launchpad to run for governor, because she went after the corruption going on in Alaska at the time.

"For me, I think she's just catching her breath. She's just too young to retire," he added. "She did say 10 years ago she wanted to be president some day. She hasn't backed off from that."

In Carey's opinion, Palin's career as an elected official is over, but he doesn't expect Palin to be leaving the headlines anytime soon.

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"She's gone from being our governor or a public figure in Alaska to being a national celebrity," he said.

"It's clear that her days of governor -- there are just a few of them left, but she's really only at the beginning of her career as a celebrity."

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