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Don't count out Sarah Palin

By Paul Sracic, Special to CNN
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin meets with fairgoers while visiting the Cattle Barn at the Iowa State Fair.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin meets with fairgoers while visiting the Cattle Barn at the Iowa State Fair.
  • Paul Sracic: It's not clear whether Sarah Palin will run for president
  • He says if she does, she would be a formidable candidate, despite poor poll numbers
  • He says Palin has shown an ability to speak optimistically about America's future
  • Sracic: Former Alaska governor could combine criticism of Obama with positive vision

Editor's note: Paul Sracic is chairman of the department of political science at Youngstown State University in Ohio. His most recent book is "San Antonio v. Rodriguez and the Pursuit of Equal Education" (University Press of Kansas).

(CNN) -- Sarah Palin's political action committee has produced a two-minute video that is stirring up quite a buzz among political commentators. Whether the video, entitled "Iowa Passion," actually proves that the former Alaska governor intends to enter the 2012 presidential contest or is instead just the latest installment in the ongoing "Palin plays the media like a fiddle" show is unclear.

The video, however, does clearly demonstrate one thing: If Palin decides to run, she will be a formidable candidate, both in the primary and perhaps even the general election.

Admittedly, it is easy to argue the contrary position. After all, in terms of the Republican primary, the tea party supporters who are Palin's natural base already have two candidates to vote for in Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Even if Palin were able to peel off some or even a majority of the Bachmann and Perry supporters, the split in the vote would seem to virtually assure the favorite of the non-tea party Republicans, Mitt Romney, the nomination. And should Palin somehow survive the primary gantlet and emerge as the Republican nominee, current polls show her losing to President Obama by more than 15 points.

These are all obviously strong and valid points; up until a few days ago, they were enough to lead me to discount Palin as a serious candidate. But now I am not so sure. What has changed my mind? Well, as Palin might say, it was that gosh darned video.

Now, one campaign ad does not a campaign make. But it was not the clip itself that caused me to rethink a Palin candidacy. It was more that the clip looked so familiar. More precisely, it was who, or whose campaign, the images in the commercial immediately brought to mind.

Paul Sracic
Paul Sracic

In the video, the initial scenes of bright sunlight shining over Iowa cornfields lead into uplifting images of young people and young couples with children smiling and enjoying the day at the Iowa State Fair. In a phrase, it is "Morning in America." Those of us of a certain age remember the Reagan campaign's seminal commercial of that name, an advertisement that helped to secure his crushing landslide re-election in 1984.

Of course, since Reagan was already completing his first term in office, his commercial referred to what he claimed to have already done. Palin, on the other hand, is speaking to the future. In quasi-religious terms, she criticizes the lack of "faith" that Washington has in the American people, while confidently championing the coming "great awakening." What this shows more than anything else is that Palin understands what Reagan always knew: Americans want to be optimists. More important, she is media savvy enough to know how to deliver that message in a captivating fashion.

My point is not that Palin is Reagan. They differ in many obvious and substantial ways. Reagan had been the governor of a large, electorally important state, and so few questioned his readiness to assume the presidency. Also, Reagan had honed his political skills over decades, not years, and had a well thought out ideology.

Palin, however, has risen to prominence in a different age. Twenty-four-hour news stations provide much more exposure in a shorter period. Compared to Bachmann and Perry, at least, Palin is a veteran on the political scene. More significant, however, is the fact that, like Reagan, Palin has the correct media skills for the age.

Palin: 'I'm not stealing the spotlight'
Two sides of Sarah Palin

Reagan, the former actor, was perfect for a time when politics was more scripted. Even in a supposed unscripted debate, he could prepare and perfectly deliver a line like, "There you go again."

Palin must compete at a time when coverage is more constant and less formal. She has wisely, for example, taken to Facebook and Twitter, confident the press will pick up whatever she writes.

What is most Reaganesque about Sarah Palin, however, is that on camera, her optimism about America appears natural. This is a quality that should not be underestimated, since it allows her the leeway to be negative without turning off voters by appearing mean-spirited. This offers at least the possibility that, despite her current low standing in the polls, she will be able to leap-frog over the more negative sounding Bachmann and Perry, and compete head-to-head with Romney.

Even more than they did in 2008, Americans want hope. What Palin's handlers have in the former governor is a candidate they can cast in a pitch-perfect media campaign that blends a criticism of the Obama administration with a positive message about the future.

I am not saying Palin will be the president someday, or will even secure the Republican nomination. If the voting in either contest were held today, she would lose. It is very dangerous, however, to count out a candidate like Palin before she has had a chance to campaign. Recall that, back in January 1980, before he had even secured the Republican nomination, an ABC news poll had Reagan trailing Carter by 30 points.

At the very end of the Palin video, there is a shot of a bear rising up on its hind legs. The camera angle, a somewhat silhouetted view looking up a hill, is right out of another 1984 Reagan commercial, the so-called "Bear in the Woods" spot. In the Reagan ad, the bear stood for the former Soviet Union. Now, the not-so-subtle reference is to the "momma grizzly" from Alaska.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Sracic.