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Leading article: Alaska's hockey mom moves on

Sarah Palin may have bowed out as Governor of Alaska, but even as she served her last salmon-burger at the governor's picnic, it was unclear whether we were looking at an end or a beginning. She left office with all the confidence and aplomb that had marked her political career to date, pledging to write a book and work to build a centre-right Republican coalition. There may be little doubt about the former, but the latter looks a much tougher and more questionable proposition.

To be sure, even after her ill-judged run for Vice-President, Ms Palin retains much of her popularity with the Republican grassroots. She is one of them and speaks their language. It would also be unwise to underestimate the capability and drive of a woman who rose so fast and with such assurance to become governor of her state. Her decision not to see out her elected term, bizarre though it seems, may not long be held against her.

But she takes into the next stage of her life an enormous amount of baggage. Even if you exclude her family problems, she has debts to pay, lingering legal battles to fight over conflicts of interest, and a style that would not be accommodated easily in Washington. Out of office, she may also struggle to find a platform.

If they want to contest the centre ground, the Republicans could well be better off without Ms Palin. That said, they are in sore need of a strong unifying figure. As President Obama meets his first serious obstacles, not least on health reform, he and Congressional Democrats would look far less convincing if the Republicans were not so weak and divided. Some of the fiercest opposition to the Democrats has come from the former Vice-President, Dick Cheney, but it has been as much about justifying the past as preparing the Republican Party for the future.

The scale of Mr Obama's election victory forced Republicans back to the drawing board; nine months later, though, there is scant proof they have reached any useful conclusions. This may be good for the Democrats, but it is not healthy for such a large part of the US electorate to lack a coherent national voice. The question is: if not Sarah Palin, then who?