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Letterman dustup shows Palin still has political star power

ANCHORAGE — Gov. Sarah Palin returned to the national stage in a big way this past week, rocketing back into the national consciousness with her David Letterman feud, slams on the Obama administration and drama with national Republican leaders.

While Palin won't say if she is running for national office, there is no shortage of people offering advice and declaring her to be an inspiration or making her a punch line. Her trip to the Lower 48 over the past week has the country again fascinated.

The passion of her supporters hasn't flagged a bit since last year's presidential election, burning far hotter than that of any other Republican presidential hopeful. They see her as the future of the party, an antidote to President Barack Obama. Yet she remains highly controversial and attracts intense criticism from non-supporters.

"She is who people are talking about," said Matthew Dowd, a former top strategist for George W. Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "That trip demonstrated that whatever people's feelings about her, she is a point of conversation. So depending upon her, she has the potential to emerge as a leader of the Republican Party."

For that to happen, though, Dowd thinks Palin needs to move beyond celebrity. She can do that, he said, by advancing a substantive values argument in her upcoming book. Another option, he suggested, would be to host an academic forum on economics in which she puts forth her own opinions. She's bright and charismatic but needs to prove substance, he said.

"She's got to get back in the news sections and out of the style sections and People magazine coverage," he said.

James Carville, the national Democratic strategist, said he wouldn't mind seeing Palin's profile grow.

"Both as a Democrat and just as a person who enjoys being entertained, I can't get enough of her. I taught a class on the 2008 election at Tulane, and I had to get the students to stop me from talking about her because it was just too compelling. She doesn't always just sit on the edge of the cliff, she actually falls off it sometimes," he said.

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