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Media chase Palin, and her sway grows

By Edward Morrissey, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Edward Morrissey: No one knows if Sarah Palin will run; she's keeping her options open
  • He says bus tour shows how media treat Palin, craving her even while dismissing her
  • Attention brings money to Palin's PAC and ratings and page views to media outlets, he says
  • Morrissey: Even if she doesn't run, this interlude helps build Palin's stock as a kingmaker

Editor's note: Edward Morrissey, a conservative, is a senior editor and correspondent for HotAir.com.

(CNN) -- Will Sarah Palin run for the Republican presidential nomination? This question has absorbed the political media, pundits and soothsayers ever since the 2008 election.

Despite countless hours of prognostication and analysis, no one has come any closer to an answer in the 31 months since, either. The answer lies with the former Alaska governor, as it always has, and she is still publicly keeping her options open.

Under normal circumstances, Palin's bus tour would give a strong indication of an intent to run. Candidates often make a spectacle of a "listening tour" before making a formal move, such as opening an exploratory committee, which would commit them to a race. In this case, Palin hasn't conducted a listening tour as much as a lesson for observers to see how the media treat her, and the spectacle belongs solely to them.

Palin to news media: Catch me if you can

The tour started with MSNBC reporting (mistakenly) that Palin would arrive uninvited to the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally in Washington last weekend. This turned out to be untrue, and was based on an internal miscommunication at the veterans' organization that took only a few minutes to diagnose, as I did the same evening by checking with Rolling Thunder's media representative.

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The coverage reached its nadir when reporters began claiming that Palin was putting their lives in danger by not giving them an itinerary of her bus tour, apparently because keeping up with a large and not exactly speedy bus decorated with the American flag was beyond the ability of journalists.

The media turned Palin's bus tour into a celebrity chase, instead of covering it as a political event. As a political event, Palin's travelogues show that it's been pretty low-key. She has not made grand speeches or committed to a campaign, but instead is using the tour to raise political action committee funds -- in the same way other announced and unannounced candidates have done for months, with little or no comparable national media coverage.

So why does Palin rate such a press gaggle and make headlines for her tour? Palin generates ratings and page views; she sells advertising. She puts money in the pockets of media outlets. And her bus tour has exposed the media's craving for all things Palin, even while they treat her as a fringe character in American politics. The bus tour puts that paradox on display for all to see.

Beyond exposing the media hypocrisy, what significance is there in the bus tour? It strengthens Palin's hand whether or not she decides to get in the race. A regional or national tour -- with the media in tow -- helps generate enthusiasm for a potential candidate and could affect perceptions and polling results. Assuming that the momentum builds throughout the tour, Palin would have the opportunity to announce her candidacy at a peak moment to take advantage of all the publicity.

Let's assume Palin won't run. What does the bus tour do for her in that case? Palin will build her PAC coffers, making her a formidable kingmaker in this cycle. When the debates start in earnest, the opportunities to draw enough attention as a noncandidate will narrow considerably; while the field is still in flux, Palin has little competition for attention from the base, and definitely from the media.

Obeidallah: Support Palin! Put a comedian to work!

Even apart from the financial considerations, though, the media coverage will remind other Republican candidates that Palin can command overshadowing attention at almost any time. If the candidates who do enter the race aren't addressing her priorities, Palin could threaten their ability to win the base, especially the Tea Party activists who comprise Palin's passionate following.

In fact, Palin could conceivably do more to influence the election as a kingmaker on the outside, especially with the power of her PAC, than a primary candidate on the inside.

That makes Palin a formidable figure in this election in either case, a role to which the media contribute while mainly failing to grasp.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward Morrissey.

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