Madam President? It could happen

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Speculation that she will run for President in 2012 is reaching fever pitch. But what do those who watched Sarah Palin grow up make of her meteoric ascent – and ruthless ambition? By Shushannah Walshe

The first thing you notice, upon pulling up to Chuck and Sally Heath's house in Wasilla, Alaska, is the Christmas tree of moose antlers piled up next to the driveway. Step inside the ranch-style home, and you get another unmistakable sign that you're not in the Democrats' America anymore: Chuck's prized collection of skinned and stuffed animals, the spoils of his many hunting trips – a cougar, a mountain goat, foxes, birds, and snake skins spilling over the banister. Outside, a picnic table offers dramatic views of the Chugach Mountain range. It was in this setting that the Heaths, putting aside their natural wariness of press from the Lower 48 states, agreed to meet a reporter, feed her fresh snap peas from their garden-and share their thoughts about their world-famous daughter, Sarah Palin.

Should she run for president in 2012? Sarah's mother, Sally, doesn't hesitate. "It would be a tough thing to do," she starts to say, until Chuck interrupts: "It's up to her, whatever she wants to do." Sally, in a green zip-up sweatshirt, continues. "I love what she's doing now: scouting around for who would be good candidates, who honestly could stand up and speak and not be afraid to tell it like it is."

They don't know her plans, the Heaths are quick to add, in their first national interview in over a year. But "it would be fun to find out some day", Sally says, with a contagious laugh.

In other words, Sarah's parents seem to feel the way a lot of Alaskans feel about the state's best-known export, next to oil and salmon: torn over the wisdom of her trying to make the White House her home.

Some friends expressed caution about Palin's future. A former adviser in DC who remains friends with Palin said he doesn't want to see her run. "I think she's got a great life. She's got the world by the tail right now," this friend says. "I mean, she's earning a lot of money, which she never had before. She is speaking to adoring crowds wherever she goes. She's greatly appreciated by those she supports and she doesn't have to take all the grief that you have to take when you are running for or holding office."

Others who are less-favourably disposed point out that Palin's aborted tenure as governor left a lot of bad blood in Alaska; they worry that her baggage would be dragged back onstage in another national campaign, and hurt the state.

But fans and foes alike warn against the dangers of selling Palin short.

"Four years ago, right after she was elected, I was quoted as saying, 'The graveyards of Alaska are covered with the bones of people crossed by Sarah Palin.' While I said crossed, what I meant was underestimated," said Alaska Republican pollster David Dittman. "And that's still true. Consistently, whether it's the local city council in Wasilla, no matter where she's gone – say, on the cusp of achieving something – there've always been detractors that say it can't happen, it won't happen, this is why she won't be successful. That's why I will say, to this day, the political graveyards of Alaska – and other places – are filled with the bones of people who underestimated Sarah. And it's still happening."

Adele Morgan, one of Palin's oldest friends in Alaska, can attest to that. She recalls approaching Palin in 2005, when she first heard that her childhood pal and basketball buddy was running for governor. "I had heard that just from the grapevine so I went and asked her," Morgan recalls. "I thought that was quite the feat at the time. And I said, 'What are your plans?' I was just kidding around and I said, 'So do you want to be president?' And that was way back then and she said, 'Well maybe.' And I was like, 'Wow you got some goals there, girl!'"

The ambition doesn't always sit well with Alaskans, who have a saying: "We don't care how they do it on the Outside." But they clearly care when the Outside suddenly lands on their doorstep. Wasilla Mayor Verne Rupright refers to the town as "Hollywood North" because of the media focus and the parade of tourists from the Lower 48 that now visits, hoping to get a glimpse of Sarah's backyard.

She doesn't spend nearly as much time there as she used to amid her speaking engagements, book tours, and appearances for midterm candidates across the country. (Indeed, until her endorsement of insurgent candidate Joe Miller in the state's GOP Senate primary, who nosed out incumbent Lisa Murkowski, Palin's influence had not been felt much at all since she resigned the governorship in 2009.)

Friends in Wasilla say she doesn't drive the family's Escalade SUV anymore and instead has gone back to the VW Jetta she used when governor to avoid being spotted.

"Every time I drive it, people know who it is and I can just drive the Jetta and nobody pays any attention," Palin told friend and Wasilla neighbor Bev Perdew.

When she is in the state, she spends most of her time in her Wasilla home on Lake Lucille. She's ended the need to pop out to do TV, having recently added a studio as an extension to her house. In the past, she was often spotted shopping at Target and Walmart; these days, she sends her eldest daughter Bristol to the store, to avoid being mobbed by friends and well-wishers.

On one hand, "you can't do anything because everybody's watching when you go to the bathroom", says Eddie Burke, a Palin family friend who says he lost his job as a radio talk-show host after skirmishing with a Palin critic who worked at the same station. On the other, Burke says, she's facing the allure of big-money book deals. "So did she leave for money? Probably so."

Burke says he still chats with Todd about snow machining (Alaskan for snowmobiling) and was even involved in preparations with Palin for her rally with Glenn Beck. "If I was advising her on one thing: [it would be] never forget your roots, never forget where you come from. I think there was a part of her that kind of got caught up. If I was to advise her, she should not forget where she came from." He says he told this to Todd, creating some "friction".

Walt Monegan knows what it's like to have friction with the Palins on the grand scale. His firing as Palin's public safety commissioner led to the "Troopergate investigation". Monegan is still struggling with the fallout years later. The former Anchorage police chief still breaks down in tears when reminiscing about his time on the beat. If Palin does make a bid for the presidency, Monegan is sure to be held up by opponents as a case study in how she can wield power vindictively. He strongly cautioned against a future President Palin.

"I think it'd be a train wreck. You need to have a thick skin in public service, especially if you're going to be a boss of any sort. People are very opinionated; they will go up and tell you what they think about you, where you've gone wrong. You have to listen to them. You don't shut them off, you don't turn your back on them, and you certainly don't attack," Monegan said. "In her case, she is not mature enough, or doesn't understand that, or she has such a large goal that she feels she knows what's best for everybody and doesn't really need any other input."

Palin's foray this summer into the Alaska Senate race left similarly bruised feelings, exacerbating a long-running feud with the Murkowski family which has divided the state's Republican ranks. It started when former senator Frank Murkowski bypassed Palin when, upon election as governor, he decided to appoint his daughter to fill out the remainder of his term in Congress. Palin returned the favour by ousting Murkowski in the GOP 2006 gubernatorial primary. The fighting continued this summer, when Palin's decision to back Joe Miller helped propel him past Lisa Murkowski for the GOP Senate nomination.

Murkowski and her allies thought the move was personal. But SarahPAC (Political Action Committee) staffer Rebecca Mansour, perhaps the aide closest to Palin, said she did not endorse Miller in revenge on the family. "She did not endorse Joe Miller to get back at Lisa. Endorsing someone everyone thought would lose would not be a way to get back at Lisa. Her endorsement of Joe Miller was about principles, not personalities," Mansour said. "It was about Alaska and her belief that Alaska should have the freedom to develop its natural resources under federal control so it can become more of a giver to the nation through resource development instead of a taker of federal pork [district funding for a specific region]."

Murkowski's campaign manager was John Bitney, who, until recently, was a Palin ally. A high-school friend who ran her 2006 campaign for governor, Bitney had a falling out with Palin when she discovered Bitney was having an affair with a family friend, a woman to whom he is now married. Bitney is skewered in Palin's book, Going Rogue, and says she sometimes uses her power to intimidate – "taking a nuclear bomb when a fly swatter would have dealt with the issue," as he puts it.

"If you are perceived having been someone who has criticised her or been on the other side of her or someone that she's gone after [there's a feeling] that somehow she can hurt you," Bitney says. [People] "are scared of her". Bitney said. "That would really concern me to have that kind of power." Bitney adds: "I would love to have peace. I'm asking for a truce."

Ms Mansour does not recognise that picture: "I've worked for her for over a year, and I have not seen any mean side to her. She's not mean like that. I don't get that criticism. She's always been very kind and considerate with me."

In smoothing over some of these rifts, Palin's parents are a great asset. Monegan, the ex-public safety commissioner, says he hasn't had any contact with Palin or her inner circle. But last winter, he ran into Chuck Heath at a dinner celebrating Alaskan seafood. Heath ran over to Monegan and gave him a handshake and hug, telling him: "That's just politics. I still like you." Heath even went over to Monegan's table to meet his family and regale them with stories of his daughter's book tour.

Nobody knows the kind of sacrifices a new national campaign would entail quite like Palin's parents, who hit the trail in 2008. The night before the ballot, Chuck told an audience in Nevada that he was the one who taught Sarah "how to field-dress a moose"; on Election Day, he joked, she was going to "field-dress a donkey", much to the crowd's delight. These days, Sally often accompanies her daughter on trips outside Alaska, helping out with the grandkids, traveling to Washington for the Glenn Beck rally last month. (Chuck, for the time being, stays put: "I don't like to go during hunting season," he says.)

Has their daughter's fame affected them? "I still run with the same derelicts I did 30, 40 years ago and buy whatever beer's on sale," says Chuck with a laugh. "Hasn't changed me a bit."

They both said they don't see their daughter much (Chuck saying he keeps track of where she travels by watching Fox News) because she is on the road so often, but when they do they don't talk with their daughter about work.

"We don't talk politics. We talk hunting, fishing, sports, and family. Just normal family, none of the political stuff," her father said. "She hears enough advice from everyone and criticism from everyone and she doesn't need to hear my bad advice. We hunt together, fish together, travel together and we don't socialise out in the limelight anymore because she's mobbed. She can't walk into a store anymore. We go to a lot of gatherings together, but she has to sneak in."

Chuck Heath says his daughter has been busy this summer working on her show for TLC, Sarah Palin's Alaska, and gave a glimpse into what it will look like. He went caribou hunting with Palin and the TLC team and his favourite episode was their gold-mining adventure, he says: "The people in Nome treated us so well and we found not a lot of gold. But enough gold to make it interesting."

© 2010, RTST, INC. FROM THE DAILY BEAST/DISTRIBUTED BY THE NEW YORK TIMES SYNDICATE

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