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Why dissing Palin won't work for Dems

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • Navarrette says Palin has singular ability to push buttons on right and left
  • Detractors who mock her stoke her popularity with "regular-folks" voters, he says
  • Palin connects with many who don't buy the media narrative, he says
  • Navarrette: Democrats and elites dismiss her popular appeal at their peril

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to Contact him here

San Diego, California (CNN) -- There's (still) something about Sarah.

What is it about Sarah Palin -- former mayor, governor, GOP vice-presidential candidate -- that drives so many Americans, supporters and critics so far around the bend?

Love her or hate her, you can't ignore her. Palin won't let you. And neither will your curiosity. You want to know what she's going to do next. What does she want? Will she run or won't she? What's her angle? Is she going back into politics or she is content to build a platform for herself outside of politics?

This much is certain: Palin should be really grateful -- for her critics, especially those in academia and the media.

Look what happened when Palin blasted President Obama during a speech at the recent Tea Party Convention by saying that -- in the war on terror -- Americans "need a commander-in-chief and not a professor of law."

Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree quickly fired back at Palin by playing the race card and complaining that the reference to Obama being likened to a professor came close to calling him "uppity."

Unbelievable. I bet you never thought of the word "professor" as a racial slur. You learn something every day. Someone should tell Ogletree: "That's not a good look."

Palin's critics can be oversensitive, dismissive and condescending, but they're also a blessing.

Every time they attack her, mock her or belittle her, she only gets more popular. Her fans get defensive and want to fight. And folks who weren't fans before get intrigued and want to find out what these powerful people in the media and the Democratic Party (if you'll forgive the redundancy) are so afraid of?

In turn, Palin has translated her notoriety into monster sales of her memoir, six-figure speaking engagements, a slew of requests to stump for Republican across the country, a paid-contributor deal as a cable television commentator and countless other opportunities. Since bursting onto the national stage as Sen. John McCain's running mate in the 2008 presidential election, Palin has acquired influence, wealth and a thick skin. All three are useful to those who run for president.

She also has an amusing knack for tweaking her critics. When liberal blogs posted photos of Palin glancing at her palm during a question-and-answer session at the Tea Party Convention and more photos showing crib notes in her palm with words such as "energy," "tax cuts," "budget" and "lift American spirits," her detractors pounced. The incident fed into their preconstructed narrative about Palin: That she's not very smart and not as genuine as she pretends to be for public consumption.

Palin took the attacks in stride, making sure that in later photos of her campaigning with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, she showed off her palm scrawled with a new message: "Hi Mom."

New York Times reporter Kate Zernike started her article about Palin's "seventh-grade style" notes with this snarky jab: "Ask conservatives why they love Sarah Palin so and they will often say it is because she is so 'authentic.' So will her crib sheet make her less so in their eyes?"

This is just sad. No, Kate. Sometimes, outside the hallowed halls of The New York Times, real people use notes -- when they go to the grocery store, make a presentation at work, speak at the Rotary Club or have a parent-teacher conference. And it doesn't make them any less authentic.

What you should worry about is whether fewer of those people are reading your newspaper because you've lost the ability to connect with them.

That's what Palin has that makes her stand out. People who run for president should know about politics and policy, but they can be taught that. What can't be taught is the ability to connect with people. Bill Clinton had it, Al Gore didn't. Barack Obama has it, John Kerry didn't. Mike Huckabee seems to have some of it, but Mitt Romney sure doesn't.

Sarah Palin has it. She connects.

So here's a warning to the Democratic Party and other supporters of Barack Obama who love to criticize Palin. They can have their fun. But they do so at their peril. Whether they realize it or not, every time they attack her, they attack the kind of voter to whom she appeals.

These people aren't part of the elite establishment. They may have not have gone to Ivy League schools. They're just everyday folks who go to work and support families. They go to church. They love their country. They're the kind of people the Democratic Party used to represent. And, at the moment, they're enjoying a breath of fresh air blowing in from Alaska.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarette Jr.