Chris Cillizza gets way ahead of himself:

... judging from the polls, Palin's image to the average American is as a likable Republican who probably needs a bit more seasoning. Sub out "Republican" for "Democrat" in that last sentence and you have the general sentiment about former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards following his 2004 run for president and subsequent vice presidential bid ...

Edwards spent the next four years laying the policy groundwork for a second bid, founding the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina and touring the country to talk about poverty and its import as a national issue ... Palin could follow the same blueprint -- choosing a signature issue (or two) and focusing heavily on making herself a leading authority on the issue while also boning up on other policy matters (particularly foreign policy) and putting in place a political team.

And, while Palin's weaknesses are apparent to any political junkie following the last few weeks of the campaign closely, her strengths are also legion ... She is beloved by social conservative voters who view her as "one of them". She will end this race, win or lose, with extremely high name identification nationwide. Regardless of the outcome, she will be a rockstar on the Republican fundraising circuit over the coming months and years. And, for a party that may well be looking to redefine itself in 2012, Palin stands out from a field that could include former Govs. Mitt Romney (Mass.) and Mike Huckabee (Ark.) as well as Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty among others.

All right, I'll play along. If - if! - Palin has a non-disastrous final month, and arrives at election day with her reputation in roughly the same position as it is today - that is to say, beloved of the right-wing rank-and-file, and viewed as underqualified but not totally Quayle-like by at least some independents - and if John McCain then loses the election, she would become a not-implausible contender for the GOP nomination in 2012. In those circumstances, the temptation to go for it might be irresistible. But it seems pretty obvious to me that she ought to resist it. The political climate is going to be tough for Republicans for a little while, most likely, and barring unforeseen circumstances Sarah Palin is not going to be elected President of the United States without rebranding herself pretty dramatically, and putting some distance between herself and the role the McCain campaign has thrust her into - which is more or less Agnew in lipstick, except folksier and with cuter kids. (Though come to think of it, for all I know Agnew had some adorable moppets of his own ...)

Now maybe the necessary transformation could be accomplished in just four years. But Palin has the luxury of time: She's extremely young, she's going to be a folk hero to the conservative base for years to come almost no matter what, and she can afford to go back to Alaska, govern her state, run for re-election in 2010 and win, and then flirt with a national run in 2012 but ultimately decide against it - because she made a promise to Alaskans, or something like that. Let Huckabee, Romney, Gingrich and Pawlenty fight the right to lose to Obama in '12; even if one of them gets extremely lucky and knocks of the Dem incumbent, by 2020 she'll still be only fifty-six, with plenty of future still ahead of her. Meanwhile, she can hoard her political capital, campaign for GOP candidates in 2010 and 2012 and create a generation of office-holders who owe her, and spend some time reintroducing herself to the American public in a less-partisan context. What Edwards did with poverty, she could do with education or health care or some other issue where the GOP is weak - and better still, she could get involved in overseas charity work, and spend a lot of time shuttling around the Middle East and Africa with Rick Warren and Bono, helping widows and orphans and AIDS patients, occasionally meeting foreign leaders, and filling up the back pages of her passport. Next thing you know, she'll have Nick Kristof plugging her in his columns, and Bill Clinton praising her at goodwill dinners (not that he wouldn't anyway), and the ladies from The View having her on to chat about her charity work - and she'll refuse to talk politics, thank you very much, and although the base will still love her, the days when she spent all her time attacking Barack Obama and fumbling through nightly-news interviews will be long forgotten. And then - then - in 2016 or 2020, she'll run for President, and as long as some rising half-Hispanic GOP star doesn't come along to play Obama to her Hillary, the rest will be history.

Or, alternatively, she can spend a lot of time on Fox News over the next two years, decline to run for re-election in Alaska, surround herself with the same advisers and strategists who have made the McCain campaign such a glowing success, and run for President in 2012 - and lose to Barack Obama (if she makes it that far) by, oh, seven percentage points or so, amid a flurry of Tina Fey sketches and YouTube clips of the Couric interview. The choice is hers.

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