Why Going Rogue Won't Work

Sarah Palin is dominating the political conversation. But if she really wants to be president, she's going about it all wrong.

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AP

Even before donning biker leather and mounting a Harley-Davidson for a motorcycle rally in Washington last weekend, Sarah Palin had seized the political spotlight once again. A few days earlier, word had leaked of a gauzy biographical film soon to debut in Iowa. Then came news of a cross-country bus tour. Suddenly, the entire Republican presidential field was upended. Palin had gone rogue again, and the media were in a tizzy.

Most analysts agreed this was bad for the other candidates, save perhaps for Mitt Romney, who might benefit by the comparison. Tim Pawlenty had been drawing good reviews in his first week as a candidate until Palin upstaged him. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman, and the others would find it harder to get noticed with the media's favorite distraction back in the picture. Even Romney, for all his money and familiarity, could wind up getting overshadowed. He'll formally enter the race today in New Hampshire, which happens to be where Palin's bus is headed

But what about Palin herself? Is crashing the race really her best shot to win the nomination, if that is indeed her goal? Most analysts ignore the question, content to marvel at her chutzpah. But if Palin wants to win, there's a strong case to be made that she's going about it all wrong -- that she would be better off running a more traditional campaign.

Going rogue has one principal benefit: it draws attention. But she would never have lacked for that, and following the established course of a presumed front-runner would have given her a number of salutary benefits.

To begin with, she'd probably be leading in the polls. After the 2008 election, Palin was the GOP's hottest commodity, a bona fide sensation who had captivated a party brought low by George W. Bush. Had she taken on the role of leader-in-waiting, she would have been difficult to challenge. Instead, she kept everyone guessing and let other candidates emerge, and, in Romney's case, overtake her.

Palin's greatest vulnerability is the impression that she's erratic. A well-orchestrated campaign like the one that Karl Rove rolled out for Bush ahead of the 2000 primaries could have mollified some skeptics. Like Palin, Bush was regarded as callow and not quite up to the job. Those doubts mostly vanished after a carefully arranged regimen of policy conferences, thematic speeches, and personal appeals to major GOP donors. By contrast, Palin's support among Republicans has declined steadily since the last election. As her bus zigzags between national landmarks, trailed by an army of reporters mystified about her plans and intentions, she seems more erratic than ever.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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