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Searching for a ‘centered’ candidate

Alexandria, Virginia

Take a slow, deep breath and, as you exhale, begin to relax. Let the tension go. See your worries float away on a cloud. Inhale and appreciate a new, fresh energy coming in. Allow yourself to imagine what could be.

Picture a presidential race in which the candidates ditch the insults. Visualize campaigns that inspire with positivity. Believe that you don't have to cut through the noise to figure out who these two men are, and what their leadership would look like in the years ahead, because they will tell you.

President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, can let go of their fears and rise above the negativity. They can stop talking about the other guy, get in touch with their own hearts and simply speak their truth to the American people.

Sound hokey or ridiculous? It might. But if you're Laura Palmer, a former Washington insider, a shift like this -- by either candidate -- would snag her vote.

Palmer, 36, represents one of the fastest-growing demographics in the country: unmarried women. They account for a quarter of America's voting population. And in 2008, women in general voted at a higher rate -- casting 10 million more ballots than men.

In Palmer's adopted hometown of Alexandria, a disproportionate number of women are unmarried compared to the rest of the country. And in a swing state like Virginia, where every vote counts, Palmer matters.

But until she sees which man is better able to step outside himself and above the polarity, she will remain undecided.

She's seen how tapping into the subconscious mind, listening to one's intuition and nurturing creative, optimistic thinking can change lives and organizations. It's worked for her, for people she's helped and, she believes, it can do the same for the country.

"This isn't pie in the sky or head in the clouds," Palmer says. "This is real. It's a choice."

It's a lazy, rainy Saturday afternoon in Washington, and Palmer is lounging on a friend's futon. Splayed out beside her is a snoozing Sadie, her 10-year-old Alaskan husky who she likes to call her "director of relaxation."

The two are here today because Palmer believes in the importance of "holding space" for others. By simply being present, she and Sadie are helping this friend declutter her life. There's a closet full of baggage getting in the way, including a box full of reminders of the friend's ex-husband.

Palmer pads across her friend's studio apartment and cues the iPod to Kundalini techno music, Kundalini being the form of yoga and meditation she practices and teaches on the side.

"Not normal," she acknowledges with a smile as the music begins. "But we'll play some Jack Johnson and '80s music, too."

Turns out her friend, who doesn't want to be named, is holding space for Palmer, too. Piled around her and Sadie are months of accumulated magazines she brought from home and needs to clear out of her own life. Fortune, Fast Company, Entrepreneur -- publications this budding businesswoman feels compelled to leaf through if not fully read. There's also Travel and Leisure, the pictures offering "positive visualizations;" the magazine from the Appalachian Mountain Club, a nod to her love for nature; and issues of Washington Lawyer, which she quickly and "with great pleasure" tosses into the recycling pile.

Palmer spent about seven years practicing law, representing companies in labor and employment cases involving discrimination and disabilities, among other issues. She counseled clients when employees had performance problems. She took pride in her ability to negotiate and settle most cases outside the courtroom. She saw that the legal process kept plaintiffs focused on negativity and blame, rather than their happiness and growth.

Palmer is the sort who often sees what people need before they do. She's helped friends make decisions and focus on what matters. And she's spotted the guys who couldn't be trusted before her girlfriends who dated them did.

"I call her my wise friend," says Kari Dunschede, 39, of Naples, Florida, one of Palmer's best friends for more than 15 years. "She has a gift of seeing the big picture; she always has."

Palmer began exploring the "woo-woo" world years earlier, at a time when she had nothing to lose. Chronic back pain during law school led her to open Dr. John E. Sarno's "Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection." Just reading it, she says, she was cured. And intrigued.

After grad school, a nagging gluten intolerance, which cropped up out of nowhere and robbed her of pizza and beer for four years, prompted her to try hypnotherapy in 2005. After a couple sessions, and dutiful listening to custom CDs, she was eating and drinking wheat again.

She didn't really get why these approaches worked, she just knew they did. It became, at first, her hobby to figure it out.

Recently she began experimenting with Reiki, a form of energy therapy that often involves hands-on healing.

Inside the Washington apartment, her friend pushes aside the boxes. She complains of cramps and says she feels woozy. Palmer asks her to skip the pain meds and lie down.

Palmer places first one hand and then both over her friend's stomach. They close their eyes. They both say they sense an energy force or current; Palmer feels it in her "heart center," hands and feet.

Jack Johnson sings in the background. Sadie lifts her head and licks the arm of the friend, who is now crying.

Palmer then points her right middle finger into her friend's stomach and slips her left hand under the woman's lower back. She says she's tapping into the channel of energy that controls her friend's belief and faith in herself. The pain begins to lift.

Sadie stretches and drops one of her paws on the woman's stomach. "She's connecting my second and third chakras," she laughs, now feeling better.

Palmer's friend gets up and back to the boxes as Palmer grabs the next magazine in her pile. Together, yet apart, they keep clearing their spaces.

She brews homemade yogi tea, buys organic and, as of last fall, there is no television in her Old Town Alexandria apartment. She begins each day with a yoga set and meditation and recites mantras in her head when she runs. Phrases like "universal life force energy" roll off her tongue.

But Palmer doesn't wear long flowing skirts or crystals around her neck. In her tailored black dress, tasteful jewelry and clean ponytail, her look could be torn out of a Banana Republic catalog or a corporate brochure.

In her airy brownstone office, a short commute from home, one wall provides framed snapshots of where she's been. There's her college degree from Auburn University and her law degree and master's in public policy -- both from the University of Chicago. But there's also the certificate she never saw coming, the one showing she's now a certified hypnotherapist. Not yet on the wall is the certificate showing she's been trained in energy medicine, too.

"If you had told me I was going to do this even four years ago," she says, "I would have laughed and had no idea what you meant."

On her bookshelves are titles like Maya Angelou's compilation of poetry "And Still I Rise," Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" and Zali Segal's "Hypnotize This!"

Nearby is the 6-year-old plant Palmer says "thrives on neglect." On a window ledge in the foyer outside her office is a business card holder engraved with her nickname, "Squirrel." There are photographs of glaciers in Alaska and one of Jimmy Buffett's grandfather's boat in Mobile Bay, taken by a relative. There's also one of Palmer in a suit, standing with other political appointees at the U.S. Department of Labor, where she served as an adviser during the Bush administration in 2008.

Music by Mark Romero plays in the background; she says it's been shown to raise a listener's vibrations, enhancing mental awareness while reducing stress.

Palmer says she's exactly where she's supposed to be. Her internal compass, though, took a while to direct her here.

Raised in a conservative, Catholic home in Mobile, Alabama, Laura Ann Palmer was named after a great aunt, Annie Laurie Palmer -- known to everyone as Sissy. The younger Palmer has always felt drawn to and inspired by her namesake, an independent woman who worked 42 years for the phone company and was 70 before a man convinced her to marry.

Now 96, Sissy has watched her great-niece with wonder and recalls a time when Palmer, then a tiny thing, made her smile with pride.

Sissy noticed Palmer eyeing her brother as he held a toy she clearly wanted. Other little sisters might have tried to grab it, but not Palmer. She strategized. She picked up another toy, scooched closer to her brother and gingerly put it down in his line of sight. Distracted by what was new, he dropped his toy and snatched what she'd planted there. Quietly, thoughtfully, without stirring conflict, Palmer reached over and took what she was after.

"Golly, that girl, she's going to get what she wants," Sissy remembers thinking, her drawl thick. "Not over 4 years old, and she knew how to do that already. ... She had some serious ideas. She thought things out before she jumped. I knew she'd probably do something worthwhile."

Palmer's conduct cards in grade school, though, were terrible. She talked too much and was more interested in connecting with classmates than learning how to count. She was the child in the outfield who, during ballgames, picked dandelions and turned cartwheels. She never did color between the lines.

From an early age, Palmer picked up on the emotions of others, sensing that people's feelings, thoughts and energies could affect those around them.

She was the sort to speak up for the underdog, says longtime friend Joey Gechijian, 37, who lived on the opposite side of Dog River from Palmer and came up with her nickname ("She looked like a squirrel when she laughed," he says).

In high school she began to focus, getting into Model U.N. and debate and gaining recognition for her poetry. In college, she found her confidence. A class in American government turned her onto politics, and she dove in -- serving in Auburn's student government all four years.

She suspects her name helped her earn votes. The murder of a fictional Laura Palmer had driven the TV sensation "Twin Peaks" a few years earlier.

But Palmer had more than name recognition. Friends say she floated between worlds, connecting with everyone from conservative sorority leaders to liberal newspaper editors. She wasn't afraid to make compromises.

Just as Sissy had seen years earlier, people noticed that when she set her mind to something, Palmer got it done. Colleagues in student government jokingly called her a "little bulldog."

But senior year gave Vice President Palmer a taste of the ugly side of politics. Departments were downsized, teachers lost jobs. Dealing with the administration made her head hurt.

By the time she graduated, she needed a break from conflict.

Palmer moved to Boston, where she worked for Fidelity Investments, educating people about mutual funds and 401ks for 70 hours a week. She then left private enterprise for the nonprofit sector, returning South to Birmingham to work for a trade association and search for meaning. Missing intellectual stimulation, though, she moved back North, this time to Chicago, to take on the heavy double-dose of academia.

Those were intense years, she says. She stretched herself thin, lost sight of her passions, married and divorced a man who wasn't right for her. But it was also when she discovered yoga and her dog.

"I thought I saved Sadie, but she saved me," Palmer says. She was forced to get out to dog parks, learn how to run and clear her head.

With two graduate degrees, she moved back to Alabama to practice labor and employment law. But looking for a new challenge and a change of scenery, the then-registered Republican impulsively submitted an application to the White House in 2007. By the following spring, she was in Washington.

The Department of Labor appointment was the best legal job she says she ever had, despite the longer-than-law-firm hours and lower pay. She was fascinated by the dynamic that forced "the politicals" (Republicans who'd been appointed) and "the careers" (most of whom she says were Democrats) to collaborate on policies and regulations.

And while she saw plenty of mutual respect within the department, she also got a front-row seat to the gridlock that frustrates so many Americans.

By day, she said she and her colleagues were busy "playing defense" as the Democratic Congress tried to slow them down, burying them in paperwork. By night, they'd get around to working on the actual policies. It didn't matter if the careers and politicals agreed that people in both parties would benefit from what they worked on; this was how the game was played.

She says she's not so naïve as to think it would have been any different if the politicals had been Democrats and the Congress had been Republican.

But the election of President Obama meant a lost job and a return to law firm life.

This time she joined the Washington office of the large international firm Hunton & Williams and became embroiled in a complicated case she prefers not to discuss. Outside the office, she kept exploring interests she couldn't shake.

It wasn't that Palmer disliked her job, but she was stressed and grieving deeply, having lost three relatives -- her grandfather, a great-aunt and her godfather, an uncle -- in the span of a year. Again, with nothing to lose, she explored something different: She picked up a book, CD and DVD about energy medicine by Donna Eden.

"When I got the materials, I thought, this is ridiculous," she says, because the techniques seemed too simple. "But I was desperate."

Once more, exploring the mind-body connection worked.

She enrolled in a regional program to learn energy medicine. She began attending Saturday classes to get certified in hypnotherapy. All this while holding down her law firm job.

"And now you know why I'm single," Palmer says with a laugh.

Self-conscious about what she was pursuing, she kept these ventures mostly to herself. She knew people might think this stuff was hooey. But she slowly began to experiment on willing friends. The work came easily to her; she was good at it and saw results.

She used her lawyer skills to ask probing questions, unearth information, analyze evidence and get to the root of people's problems. But in this work, she was building a case from a place of compassion -- wanting to empower her volunteer clients, not find flaws to hold against plaintiffs. Hypnotherapy allowed her to use her knack for poetry, the language of metaphors necessary to communicate with the subconscious mind.

At the law firm, where she still spent her days, she began putting simple energy work techniques into practice to open her mind and de-stress.

She demonstrates one technique, raising her arms and shooting them down to the floor, hands extended, while exhaling loudly -- thereby "expelling venom" and letting go of anger.

"I did that one a lot in my office with the door closed," she says. "Am I the only one who needs to do that to avoid negotiating from a place of anger? ... The first to get angry loses."

In the fall of 2010 she decided on the name of the company she'd create, Bridgenosis, and she registered the trademark immediately -- "as if someone was going to grab it," she says. It would be a company that would help people and organizations turn obstacles into opportunities and use coaching, creative problem-solving, consulting and hypnotherapy to get there.

But it wasn't until April 2011 that she fully released her fears, followed her heart and listened to her intuitive wisdom. Palmer filed one last legal brief and made the leap.

Grady Frank isn't the typical sort who'd buy into what Palmer's doing, but the 65-year-old attorney can't help himself.

The two met in the summer of 2011, when they were out and about with their dogs in Old Town Alexandria. After a handful of shared dog walks, he found himself fascinated by Palmer and her path. Her intelligence, her entrepreneurial spirit and what seemed like "wide-eyed naïveté" struck him, as did her indomitable positivity.

He was worrying about developing his firm's litigation business in Alexandria, and she said she could help him. Frank, who describes himself as a "dinosaur" and a "meat-and-potatoes person," figured he'd give her a shot.

"I'm probably the least qualified audience for Laura's line of work," he says. "Right-brain and left-brain talk leaves me a bit mystified, but I had such confidence in Laura as a thinker."

And that's what landed him in her office, where he gave her "the benefit of the doubt about the weirdness of what she's doing." He allowed himself to broaden his perspective, consider creative problem-solving, think more positively, and -- yes -- experience hypnotherapy.

"I got about four new clients in 10 days," he says, describing what happened next. "She likes to take credit, and I like to credit my brilliance."

He now finds himself telling golfing buddies and other lawyers about Palmer.

Other straight-laced friends of hers, who might roll their eyes when people talk about woo-woo endeavors, say they don't when it comes to Palmer. They may not get it, but they get and believe in her.

A cousin who'd given up on having a good night's sleep now rests easily, no longer blocked by what Palmer calls "limiting beliefs." A client who couldn't lay off junk food and worked insane hours has reined in her habits, because she now understands sweets were her reward for doing what she dreaded as a child. She doesn't need to be miserable to earn rewards and now has a life.

Palmer doesn't pretend to be a doctor or therapist. She doesn't want people to come back often or depend on her. She wants clients to walk away after a single 2-to-3 hour, $550 session feeling self-empowered.

When friends ask if she works with crazies, she says she works with normal people who are weighed down by crazy ideas.

It's 6 a.m. when Palmer and Sadie head toward Jones Point Park along the Potomac River. She grew up on the water and needs to live near it. She says it's part of her "life instruction manual" and calms her.

They come here every day. They run or walk along the hiking trails in the woods, and Sadie, off leash, gets in touch with her inner dog, eating things she shouldn't. Palmer sometimes travels with a garbage bag, picking up trash along stretches of water where she wants to sit. In her worldview, she cleans up so she can better enjoy the space, and by extension others will, too.

To the left up the Potomac sits the nation's capital. Monuments and the Capitol dot the horizon. It's a city she no longer commutes to.

She's removed herself, more than geographically, from politics, the polarity and the casting of blame. Yet she remains politically astute and very careful. She won't say who she voted for in 2008 and vows to stay mum this year, too. Ask her about the hot-button issue of abortion, and she won't go there. She doesn't want to put off potential clients. If pushed, she calls herself a libertarian, one who leans right when it comes to economic issues but falls decidedly and unapologetically left on same-sex marriage.

Palmer hasn't given up on what this country could be. She's even been inspired to write a series of blogs, the first one entitled, "July 4th AmeriCAN Series Part 1: Change Your Mind to Change Your Country."

She believes America -- a nation founded by visionaries -- could thrive and change if people, politicians included, simply looked inside themselves. She's starting to make inroads to reach those working in the government. But nothing would make her happier than to have Congress members or even presidents, current and wannabes, sitting on her couch. She knows that if those at the top tweak their outlooks and let go of the illusions that keep them from moving forward, everyone down the line benefits, too. Trust can be restored.

"If people are going to shift," Palmer says, "now's the time."

She's still waiting to see if Obama or Romney can be the sort of leader this country needs, the sort of leader who can help make America whole. So she'll watch them in the weeks ahead -- on her iPad, computer or on a friend's TV -- to see how they carry themselves in debates, in response to critics and on the campaign trail. One of them, she hopes, will emerge more authentically to be the sort of leader she can believe in.

"I want someone to step outside of themselves, rise above this mess and see the bigger picture," she says. "It doesn't have to be like this."

As Palmer and Sadie emerge from the woods and follow a new path, the Washington area comes to life. Steady traffic rumbles along the bridge overhead. But in this space, where she has found peace, she doesn't hear the noise.