Sarah Palin at a Tea Party Express rally this week in New Hampshire.
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Sarah Palin at a Tea Party Express rally this week in New Hampshire.

Story highlights

Sarah Palin has transformed from obscure governer to GOP kingmaker

Republican presidential hopefuls often publicly praise Palin

Will Palin use GOP praise to make a play in 2012?

Editor’s Note: Don Lemon anchors “CNN Newsroom” on weekends during prime time and is a correspondent for the network. He’s also the author of a memoir called “Transparent.” You can follow him on Twitter, @donlemoncnn.

CNN —  

What’s to become of me? Eliza Doolittle asks in “My Fair Lady,” one of the most successful and popular musicals of all time. That same question is fitting when it comes to Sarah Palin.

Because like Doolittle, Palin has and is undergoing quite a transformation before our very eyes. Doolittle’s metamorphosis happens on a Broadway stage. Palin’s on a political one. And as the plot thickens the audience is captive, wondering if either ingénue will meet the challenge: flower girl or presidential candidate?

But unlike Eliza Doolittle, who was a malleable and willing subject, in the ongoing musical that is Sarah Palin, the student has become the teacher.

Instead of ruing her lot as an outsider, she embraced it. And by doing so, in just a few years Palin has outmaneuvered, even leapfrogged her Professor Higgins, John McCain. So, regardless of her decision about a presidential run, Palin has positioned herself as the kingmaker of conservative politics.

How did she do it? Perhaps by sheer shrewdness or sheer luck, Palin spotted an opportunity early on with a growing chorus of other self-proclaimed outsiders, the tea party, and seized on it. Now, while the Republican straw polls, caucuses and debates play out, Palin simply orbits around it all, eclipsing her show’s extras, the supposed front-runners.

In fact, it can be argued that some of the front-runners ascended to their current positions because Sarah Palin helped them get there.

Because of Palin’s celebrity billing, her raising money and campaigning for Michele Bachmann’s congressional re-election in 2010 helped to elevate Bachmann’s national profile. Just before Palin joined her on the campaign trail last year, Bachmann wrote, “There is absolutely no one more in tune with the hearts and minds of everyday Americans than Gov. Palin.”

Around that same time, when a politician with barely any name recognition above the Mason Dixon line needed a big name endorsement and some publicity to help get him re-elected, he called on Sarah Palin and she responded. Texas Gov. Rick Perry said then of Palin, “If there’s a bigger endorsement in the Republican universe, I don’t know who it is than Sarah.”

That same year, in a stunning display of role reversal, when her former presidential running mate, John McCain, faced an unexpectedly tough senatorial re-election bid, Palin once again became his leading lady. After Palin accepted McCain’s invitation, he wrote, “I’m looking forward to getting back on the campaign trail with my former running mate.” He went on to say Palin “energized our nation and remains a leading voice in the Republican Party.”

Bachmann, Perry and McCain aren’t the only current or former presidential hopefuls to lavish praise on the former Alaska governor. In what some call a cringe-worthy moment, in 2008 at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jon Huntsman nominated Palin as his party’s vice-presidential nominee.

On the verge of losing his voice from speaking over a crowd yelling, ‘Sarah, Sarah, Sarah,’ Huntsman said, “Hockey moms of the world unite. History will be made tonight and her name is Sarah Palin.” (Applause) “We are looking for a beacon of light to show us the way. We are looking for an American who represents every one of us, who can relate to the needs of our families and the struggles of our country. We are looking for Sarah.”

That was quite a ringing endorsement. In fact, all of them are. With her accolades caught on video, Palin needn’t toil in creating campaign ads against most of the current GOP presidential candidates. “Just roll the tape,” could make for another simple yet effective Palin catch phrase – one of her specialties

And let’s not leave Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich out of this cast. While a bit more muted in his praise of Palin, Romney has supported her in the past. In a 2008 CBS News interview, Romney told Harry Smith, “She’s been a positive addition to the ticket. I think she’s fired up the base and is drawing out volunteers.” And that same year Newt Gingrich told NBC News, “She has a stronger resume than Barack Obama. She’s been a real mayor. He hasn’t. She’s been a real governor. He hasn’t.” That was just the beginning of his supportive monologue about Palin live on cable television.

It will be hard for the current field of GOP hopefuls to walk back what came out of their own mouths. They said it but Palin is using it to write her own script and lyrics in just what might turn out to be the presidential campaign of the future.

How does it all end? Will she run? Only she knows.

But one thing is for sure: Palin loves the drama and the spotlight. And they appear to love her, too. So, the finale of this musical depends on none other than the star, the writer, the producer and the director of the show, Sarah Palin.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Don Lemon.