You and I have just become eyewitnesses to the practical side of Sarah Palin.
With a simple Facebook posting nine days ago, and a 30-second message sent to telephones in 400,000 Republican households, Palin served as both sword and shield for Karen Handel — boosting the former secretary of state to the top rung in a GOP runoff for governor.
It may have been the most efficient and impressive use of political celebrity this state has ever seen, made on behalf of a woman whose views sometimes mirror those of the former Alaskan governor – but not always.
Which is where Palin’s practical side asserted itself.
Some people would rather be right than be president. Tuesday’s vote in Georgia proved that Sarah Palin isn’t one of them.
We are excessively familiar with the slightly ditzy, I-can-see-Russia-from-my-house caricature of Palin on network TV. And Fox News makes sure we never miss the wise-cracking, line-in-the-sand ideologue.
So the concept of a calculating, distant Palin tipping the balance in Georgia politics will take some getting used to. Chances are good that we’ll have that opportunity over the next three weeks.
As was Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Handel was already on an upward trend before Palin named her as one of her “mama grizzlies.”
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, whose stand on illegal immigration has made her perhaps the second most popular woman in the GOP, had already sided with Handel.
“Sarah Palin just lit the after-burners,” said Handel spokesman Dan McLagan on Tuesday.
Two opponents, former congressman Nathan Deal and state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, had no choice but to launch attacks that otherwise might have waited until the runoff that begins today.
Handel had waffled on gay rights issues – and even misdirected voters on her positions, they charged. As chairman of the Fulton County Commission, she had directed funds to Planned Parenthood, the incorporated but non-profit face of evil within the pro-life world.
None of it stuck. Palin’s endorsement of Handel came so late that her backing never appeared in a single TV or radio ad. Not one mailer from the Handel campaign mentioned the former Alaskan governor.
Word-of-mouth, newscasts and newspaper articles, and a single round of robo-calls from Palin last week – “Karen’s opponents are kind of saying those crazy things about her” — were enough. That’s the power of celebrity.
Palin’s endorsement helped Handel thwart nearly $1 million in advertised attacks, McLagan said. “Our question is, what are they going to do for an encore?”
Anti-abortion advocates have extolled Palin, her Down syndrome child, her pregnant teenager, and her uncompromising position on abortion. During the 2008 presidential campaign, the Republican party’s vice presidential nominee made no bones about her opposition to abortion – except when the life of the mother is at stake.
So the most fervent pro-life forces in Georgia were puzzled by Palin’s choice of Handel, who believes women should have the option of abortion in cases of rape and incest.
To those who live outside GOP circles, that may sound like a minor difference. But among Georgia Republicans, where candidates live and die by the “pro-life” label, it is no small thing.
Georgia Right to Life, which has spent the last several years persuading many GOP candidates to adopt the tougher definition, on Monday launched a late robo-call attack on Handel and her “extremely liberal record on abortion.”
The recording made no mention of Palin.
Because we treat our celebrities like royalty, her public has assumed that the Queen of the Tea Party simply didn’t have the facts. Others were less generous.
“If someone from out of Georgia is going to step into our races, then I believe that that person needs to be familiar with all the players. And I do not think in this instance, that former Governor Palin did her homework,” said Sadie Fields, the longtime conservative Christian activist.
We aren’t permitted to question Palin on her endorsement of Handel. But a pattern of conduct is evidence of premeditation.
On Monday, Palin endorsed Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire’s attorney general, in that state’s U.S. Senate race. Ayotte, like Handel, supports a woman’s right to abortion in cases of rape and incest.
But Ayotte, Palin said in her Facebook endorsement “is the strongest common-sense conservative who can win in the fall.”
One presumes that the former Alaskan governor has made a similar judgment when it comes to Handel.
Her army of mama grizzlies may have several things in common – gender, an outsider’s image and a message of reform.
But Palin, often dismissed as an unsubtle advocate of Republican orthodoxy, has calculated that while conservative purity tests might win a primary, they aren’t necessarily a formula for victory in November.