Foot-shooting season opens in Alaska

Stephen Foley reports on Sarah Palin's announcement that she is quitting as her home state's governor

About the only thing political junkies were able to agree on, after Sarah Palin's bombshell announcement that she is quitting as governor of Alaska, was that anticipation of her memoirs next year just went through the roof.

The fast-emerging view of Republican Party operatives and commentators – including some of those that have championed her national career since before the beginning – was that Palin just shot her political moose, completing one of the most spectacular flameouts in the modern era.

Some of her staunchest supporters argued that her resignation, 18 months before the end of her term, frees her to pursue a 2012 presidential bid, but they appeared to be speaking more out of hope than expectation. The betting is that, for the small-town mayor from Wasilla – who shook up Alaskan politics and nearly became vice-president of the US, who wowed sections of the national Republican party with her religious certainties, and appalled and amused vast swathes of the rest of the nation with her apparent ignorance – 26 July will not only be her last day in the governor's office, but will also be her last day in any political office.

On all sides, observers were combing through the rambling resignation speech she delivered on Friday by the lake at her home in Wasilla, flanked by her family. Could she really be about to take to the national political stage? Or the TV studio? Or did she and her family just want out of the spotlight, which has turned their personal travails into a tabloid soap opera and her political career into a costly legal nightmare?

The reasons in the speech seemed too many to be consistent and were occasionally outright incoherent. They included the desire to not be a "lame duck" governor after deciding not to run for a second term, through being fed up with "the politics of personal destruction", to a promise to "effect positive change outside government".

Bill Kristol, the conservative columnist who first touted her as a standard-bearer for the evangelical right and who had spent the past week defending her from more sniping by John McCain campaign staffers, was among those mystified. He conceded the move was "an enormous gamble" if she did harbour ambitions to be a major player.

"Now she can do her book, give speeches, travel the country and the world, campaign for others, meet people, get more educated on the issues – and without being criticised for neglecting her duties in Alaska," he said. "Everything rests on her talents, and on her performance. She'll be under intense and hostile scrutiny, and she'll have to perform well. All in all, it's going to be a high-wire act. The odds are against her pulling it off. But I wouldn't bet against it."

Palin's husband, Todd – Alaska's "First Dude" in the folksy style that is her trademark – has been telling friends that the couple simply don't know what they are going to do next. The only thing they are sure of is that they are not enjoying things as they are.

"I polled the most important people in my life, my kids, where the count was unanimous," Palin said on Friday. "Well, in response to asking, 'Hey, you want me to make a positive difference and fight for all our children's future from outside the governor's office?' It was four yeses and one 'Hell, yeah!'. And the 'Hell, yeah!' sealed it."

Her popularity in Alaska has plummeted since last August, when McCain tapped her to be his running mate, shooting her into the firmament of Republican Party stars. She has been plagued by allegations of small-town ethics violations, which she says have cost the Alaskan taxpayer $300,000 to defend and saddled her family with a $500,000 legal bill. Meanwhile, the oil revenues that allow the state to give hand-outs to all its citizens have been drying up, and Palin has faced criticism for spending too much time away from the business of government in Juneau, the state capital. A year ago, her approval ratings stood at 90 per cent, now they are barely 50 per cent.

Perhaps more importantly, her family dramas are played out on competing TV shows and in US gossip magazines, in ways that the family has found difficult to cope with. The pregnancy of Palin's teenage daughter Bristol became public during the presidential campaign, prompting a hasty engagement to the father, Levi Johnston. But that is all off this year, and the two families have been feuding on television. Then, last month, Palin expressed anger at talk-show host David Letterman's jokes about Bristol, forcing him to apologise. On Friday, the governor also complained how her youngest son, one-year-old Trig, born with Down's syndrome, has been "mocked by some pretty mean-spirited adults".

And the final straw appears to have been a resurgence of the rancour inside the McCain camp as the election campaign unravelled last year, as Palin's increasingly disastrous media appearances turned her into a laughing stock in many quarters. Senior aides to McCain – in anonymous briefings to Vanity Fair – attacked her as a lightweight, unwilling to get up to speed on national issues, and acting like a "whack job" or a "little shop of horrors". The article, playing straight into growing fissures within the Republican Party between its evangelical wing and its pro-business elite, has raised again the question of whether Palin can ever really be a serious candidate for high office.

Commentator after commentator lined up this weekend to say that her out-of-the-blue resignation can only reinforce that view. "If she is thinking that leaving her term early is going to help her prepare to maybe go on to bigger and better things on the political stage, I think she's sadly mistaken," Andrew Halcro, a Palin critic who lost the 2006 gubernatorial race to her, told "You just can't quit."

Veteran Republican pollster Glen Bolger said: "There is just no good way to say quitting has made her more qualified to run for higher office". And a party media consultant, Todd Harris, said Palin was becoming a joke. "I think Sarah Palin is on the verge of becoming the Miami Vice of American politics: Something a lot of people once thought was cool and then 20 years later look back, shake their heads and just kind of laugh."

Palin did not help herself by delivering what appeared to be a largely off-the-cuff address on Friday, in which it took 11 minutes to get round to mentioning she would resign. The speech looks set to become another Palin internet classic, alongside her catastrophic interviews with Katie Couric during the campaign, the post-election interview conducted with a farmer slaughtering turkeys in the background, and Tina Fey's spot-on impersonations of Palin on Saturday Night Live.

Her staunchest supporters, though, remain undeterred. Jane Abraham, a founder of Team Sarah, a social networking site dedicated to advancing Palin's causes, such as fighting abortion, said that the group's members "anxiously await her next decision on how she believes she can best serve our nation... Despite criticism, Governor Palin's success will endure."

The memoir, to be published by Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins next year, reportedly attracted a six-figure advance, and may also be printed in special editions with additional religious material. The details remain under wraps, but Palin has hired Lynn Vincent, of the Christian-conservative World magazine, as co-author.

The book is likely to chart her extraordinary rise through Alaskan politics, sweeping to power in Juneau on a ticket of social conservatism and fighting corruption, and her time in the national spotlight. Beyond that, her earnings from speeches and appearances could be multiples of the $125,000 she earned annually as governor. The Republican Party was this weekend manoeuvring to ensure it can still harness her grassroots appeal. Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele called her "an important and galvanising voice" who will help Republican gubernatorial candidates this autumn in Virginia and New Jersey.

Palin herself was doing little to dispel the mystery following her speech. Her two post-resignation Twitters included one praising US troops serving this Independence Day weekend. The other gave nothing away about her plans. It went: "We'll soon attach info on decision to not seek re-election... This is in Alaska's best interest, my family's happy... It is good, stay tuned."

Well, maybe.