What's your game, Sarah?

The Alaska Governor's shock resignation has left Republicans baffled, reports David Usborne in New York

Sarah Palin, the soon-to-be ex-Governor of Alaska, was rumoured to be fishing with her family yesterday, though firm information on her whereabouts was scant. So too intelligence on the question so many Americans were still waiting to hear answered: what was she thinking on Friday when she denounced quitters while quitting?

"Just that. What?" said Dan Bartlett, senior counselor to the former President George Bush, yesterday, revealing himself to be as baffled as anyone else by Mrs Palin's decision to step down on 26 July with 18 months of her term still to run. Easier to divine, however, is this: almost nobody in the Republican Party establishment is pleased about it.

So, the deciphering goes on. Is she or another member of her family under investigation for something? No, said the FBI in Alaska at the weekend, in an effort to extinguish all such chatter. What else could it be? Does she think that by escaping the burdens of governorship, preparing for a 2012 White House run will be easier? Is she just an attention-seeker?

It might be worth asking this, however: does Mrs Palin herself know what she was doing precisely when she delivered that ill-prepared resignation statement on the lake-front lawn outside her Wasilla home five days ago? If not, those waiting for further clarification may have to be patient.

Mrs Palin has cause to feel disoriented. It was in late 2007 when writers, including this one, began trekking to Wasilla to meet with most popular elected Republican politician in the land. What was making her fly so high and could she be a running mate for Rudy Giuliani when he won the Republican nomination? (We really were thinking that.)

It is possible we did her no favours. Mrs Palin was doing great in Alaska before an Arizona Senator she barely knew put her on his presidential ticket. Until then, she had almost been a moderate, even on social issues like gay unions, and bipartisan in her dealings with the state legislature. Of course she always had populist credentials, but on the national scene, battling Barack Obama, she became something different: a divider not a bridge-builder.

They noticed in Alaska. Since her return, things have not been going well at all. She has been besieged by bloggers accusing her of ethical violations and her relationship with the legislature has fallen apart. Gridlock ensued in several areas, notably when Mrs Palin's nominee for the state Attorney General was vetoed by Democrats in April. "Prior to the nomination, I was happy with the direction things were going," notes Hollis French, a Democrat in the State Senate. "But after the nomination, she aligned herself with the traditional Republican agenda."

That the endless blogger bombardments and the ethical charges had been bothering her you could glean from her statement. "Although it may be tempting... to just kind of keep your head down and plod along and appease those who are demanding, 'Hey, just sit down and shut up,' but that's a worthless, easy path out," she said. "That's a quitter's way out."

So far none of the charges have stuck but her legal fees have topped $500,000 (£300,000) already. And the time spent preparing defence strategies has the cost the state in the region of $2m. "I think she used the word 'insane' in describing those costs," Sean Parnell, the Lieutenant Governor of Alaska who is set to replace her, said on Sunday.

The blog-storm has not abated. "There's something big... something really big that's headed her way; the iceberg that's headed for the SS Palin," one called The Mudflats screeched on Saturday. On the same day, her lawyer denounced some of the allegations being levelled against her as "defamatory" and singled out one especially hostile blogger called Shannyn Moore, who then held a news conference to defend her right to free speech.

So who is to say that Mrs Palin, 45, is not simply worn out and a little confused at this moment? She now has time to tend to her bruises – few politicians in modern times have had to suffer so relentless a campaign of personal vilification as she has – and to ponder the answer about what comes next for a good while longer.

There is no question that not everyone is pleased with her. Some Alaskans might wonder what gives her the right to walk away from the job they chose her for. As for those people trying to keep the Republican Party from oblivion, her actions on Friday could hardly have come at a worse time. True, it helped distract the public from the soap opera of Mark Sanford, the philandering Governor of South Carolina, but this not the kind of news the party needs.

And there is almost consensus among political professionals that, if it is true that she is positioning herself for a presidential run in 2012, leaving her job early was a terrible move. Her biggest handicap last year was her woeful lack of experience of public leadership and foreign affairs. Alaska is isolated, but at least she was in charge of it. "Forget about Sarah Palin as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 and probably ever," wrote Fred Barnes, the conservative commentator in the Weekly Standard. "Her chances of winning the nomination have been minimised by her decision to resign." (And no, Mr Obama could not see the Wasilla lawn from Moscow yesterday.)

But, but. How easy those jokes are. Mrs Palin can, if she wants, spend the next many months travelling the land, making lots of money, raising her profile and galvanising the conservative base that really loves her.

"Unfortunately for the elite liberals, America is comprised of a majority of people who relate to Palin," wrote Rory Cooper, of the conservative Heritage Foundation, yesterday. "She is their next-door neighbour. Liberals will laugh, and look at the November election results, and say never ... but this dismissive hand wave of the American heartland from the shores of Martha's Vineyard will come back to bite them."

It's her choice, now.

Risky strategy Has Palin started her White House bid too early?

*Maureen Dowd The New York Times

"Caribou Barbie is one nutty puppy... The White House can drive its inhabitants loopy. So at least Sarah Palin is ahead of the curve on that one."

*Mike Huckabee, Former governor of Arkansas

"It's a risky strategy, and nobody knows whether it's going to pay off... In a primary this is going to be an issue. Will she be able to withstand the pressure?"

*Karl Rove, Strategist for George W Bush

"This hurts her chances of becoming president. It's not clear what her strategy is... she may not yet be prepared to operate on the national stage."

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