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Palin not present at RNC but still a presence

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
updated 4:26 PM EDT, Fri August 24, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sarah Palin's star has been eclipsed a bit during this presidential election cycle
  • Palin's focus on supporting congressional will help bolster her support in the future
  • Palin's challenge, political experts say, will be how she negotiates her way back into the national spotlight; relevance

Have a question for Wolf Blitzer and CNN's Political Team about the buzz surrounding the political conventions? Get it answered in the CNN Election Roundtable on Tuesday, August 28 at 12 PM ET live from the Republican National Convention.

Washington (CNN) -- Sarah Palin may have electrified the 2008 Republican presidential ticket when she was picked as John McCain's running mate, but just four years later her wattage has dimmed on the Republican stage.

She was snubbed for a coveted speaking role at the Republican National Convention in Tampa even though McCain, the senator from Arizona who surprised many when he selected Alaska's governor, is scheduled to speak. Other speaking spots were doled out to lesser lights like Rick Santorum, who vied unsuccessfully for the nomination this year.

Once the face of the tea party movement, Palin is not among speakers listed for the Tea Party Unity Rally on Sunday. Former presidential candidates Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, and pizza magnate Herman Cain are headlining.

Rare opportunity for speakers at GOP convention

With Republicans positioning themselves for a presidential run last year, Palin drew the most attention when she rode into Washington on the back of a motorcycle before launching a bus tour. She eventually opted against a White House bid.

Instead, Palin has hit the trail for down-ballot candidates in competitive congressional races, stumping for such political mavericks as Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock and more mainstream politicians like Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Palin's mission: to recreate the same kind of success she had in the 2010 midterm elections when many of the candidates she endorsed won.

Political experts say Palin is also carefully calculating how to wield her burgeoning kingmaker status and star power to position herself for even greater prominence in the party.

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"She has a tremendous amount of pull among the people who make up the 800-pound gorilla in the party -- the conservative base of the party," said Keith Appell, a Republican strategist and senior vice president at CRC Public Relations. "She will be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future and beyond."

Tea party candidate to receive prime RNC speaking slot

But first she has to figure out how to get back into the bigger national spotlight, political experts say.

During this presidential election cycle, Palin has been relegated to the farm leagues, said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism." It is a role that she slipped into through her own failure to bone up policy matters, he said.

"I think it's really interesting that she has fallen so far in the last year that they have no interest in having her appear at the convention," Ornstein said. "In a lot of ways this political capital she pretty much squandered by becoming a Fox News commentator and going on reality television instead of deepening her knowledge of policy issues. She decided to focus more on making money than on throwing herself into remaining deeply relevant in politics."

Will GOP talk about Bush, Palin?

In her absence, some of the same Republican women who Palin supported as part of her "Mama Grizzlies" pack have come to gain broader acceptance by the party's mainstream. In 2010, Palin endorsed New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, calling her a "Granite State 'mama grizzly' who has broken barriers."

Just two years later, Ayotte will speak during a prime-time convention slot on Tuesday.

Palin's relative absence on the national stage also allowed Bachmann "to fill the vacuum," Ornstein said.

Politics, parties keep some away from conventions

Palin's persona non grata status is "more a matter of they can't control her message as they've already learned," said Michele Swers, professor of American government at Georgetown University. "It's always useful when they can showcase Republican women, but they'd rather showcase Kelly Ayotte than Sarah Palin."

Some conservatives feel the party is giving the cold shoulder by not allowing her to speak.

"I think it's a big mistake," Appell said. "If no other reason you would have a very popular voice using prime time to peel the bark off Barack Obama in front of a national television audience."

For her part, Palin is careful in how she has phrased her notable absence from the convention's speaking roster.

"This year is a good opportunity for other voices to speak at the convention and I'm excited to hear them," Palin wrote in statement earlier this month. "As I've repeatedly said, I support Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in their efforts to replace President Obama at the ballot box, and I intend to focus on grassroots efforts to rally Independents and the GOP base to elect Senate and House members so a wise Congress is ready to work with our new president to get our country back on the right path."

But do not count Palin out, political experts say. She still has plenty of pull and will likely bide her time before making her next big move.

Drama is rare in modern conventions

"To say she is irrelevant would be a mistake," Ornstein said. "When she gets involved in a primary it has an impact. That doesn't translate into the broader national role that she could have had. But there are second, third, fourth, and fifth acts in American politics. The fact that she isn't a major factor in American politics now doesn't mean she won't be in 2013 or a subsequent point."

Palin backed Sarah Steelman in the Missouri Republican primary against politically beleaguered Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin. Republican leaders, including Romney, are now pushing Akin to drop out of the highly contested race against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill after the congressman's controversial comments on "legitimate rape."

During a recent Fox News interview, Palin suggested "maybe it is a third-party run of Sarah Steelman that I can get behind."

Palin is scarcely twiddling her thumbs while sitting on the sidelines. Her endorsements of congressional candidates have built an army of supporters inside the Beltway.

"If Romney loses by a big margin there will be a move by center-leaning Republicans to recapture dominance," Ornstein said. "But you're not going to see a lot of conservatives saying 'we were wrong about this.' You're going to have another chapter in this ongoing struggle. There will be a vacuum, Sarah could fill that vacuum."

And if Romney wins Palin will be right there on his heels making sure he sticks to his conservative promises, political experts say. She'll be joined by other conservative voices such as Bachmann, Cain, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina—all vying for dominance of who represents conservatives.

"If Romney and (Paul Ryan) win, the question is do they implement a series of policies that fit the sharp conservative agenda," Ornstein said adding that conservatives will rally to force the Romney administration to keep its promises. "If (the Romney administration) tack to the center, who's going to be leading that charge ... Sarah Palin."

Memorable convention moments

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