After twelve tumultuous months that catapulted an obscure state governor to the Republican presidential ticket, global celebrity and not a little ridicule, Sarah Palin bowed off the Alaskan political stage yesterday. But is that the end, or merely the first step on a new road that might conceivably lead to the White House?
Unspoken and unanswered, the question dominated the three picnics at the weekend marking her premature resignation as Governor of Alaska. At the last of them in Fairbanks yesterday, Ms Palin formally handed over her job to the state's lieutenant governor Sean Parnell, who will serve out the remaining year-and-a-half of her term.
She steps down burdened by costly ethics probes in her home state, waning popularity in the country, and a family life that has turned into a public soap-opera. Yet she is the best known Republican in the country at a moment when the party is desperately short of star power, as adored by her supporters as she is detested by her enemies.
Officially, nothing has been decided. "There is absolutely no plan after July 26," spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton says, dismissing talk that her boss has already decided to run for president in 2012. Her decision to resign, announced to general amazement on the eve of the Independence Day holiday three weeks ago, had been on the basis of what was best for Alaska. "I'm accepting that there are options, but there is nothing planned," Ms Stapleton said.
Those options are wide open. Amid the speculation, however, two things are certain. One is a book of memoirs, for which a lucrative contract is in the works with HarperCollins, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. The advance, likely to run into the millions of dollars, should more than cover any legal bills arising from the allegations that she used state money for expenses she should have covered out of her own pocket. The other is that she will not go quietly into the good night.
On August 8, she is due to speak at that hallowed site of the modern Republican movement, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Thereafter, Ms Palin will campaign across the country, on behalf of candidates "who believe in the right things, regardless of their party label or affiliation," she said.
As she put it on her currently preferred outlet, the social networking site Twitter, "Ain't gonna shut my mouth / I know there's got to be a few hundred million more like me / just trying to keep it free." The lines are from the song Rollin, by the country duo Big & Rich.
If – as most observers assume – her sights are ultimately set on the White House, Ms Palin's biggest challenge is to be taken seriously. Young, photogenic and outspoken, she enjoys massive recognition. But a new Washington Post/ABC poll gave her a favourability rating of only 40 per cent, with 53 per cent having an unfavourable rating. In survey after survey, majorities say she could never be elected president.
Her abrupt departure from office in Alaska may have made it easier to cultivate key primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, thousands of miles away. But it has also raised more questions about her judgement.
The farewell picnics have been vintage Palin. At the first, in the town of Wasilla where she began her political career on the city council in 1992, she dispensed hotdogs and salmon burgers. At the second, held on Saturday in state park in Anchorage, she did the honours again, this time accompanied by Parnell, for a crowd that seemed to have gathered above all for a last look at the departing celebrity in their midst.