February 14, 2010
Sarah Palin and Scott Brown set the United States frothing
Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin waving to supporters as she arrives for Republican presidential candidate John McCain's election night rally at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa in McCains home town of Phoenix, Arizona.
She is a former beauty queen; he is a one-time nude model. She has written a bestselling memoir; he is negotiating a contract to write one. Both drive pick-up trucks and base their appeal on folksy common sense.
The former Miss Wasilla and America’s sexiest man, aka Sarah Palin and Scott Brown, may sound like contestants in a celebrity game show. But to the bemusement of many Americans, the unlikely duo are the most visible Republicans in the country and may become rivals to Barack Obama in the next presidential election.
Two years ago most Americans had heard of neither. Palin was plucked from the icy wastes of Alaska, where she was governor, to be Senator John McCain’s running mate. Brown found himself catapulted to national celebrity a month ago after he unexpectedly won the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, which had been in Democrat hands for 50 years.
“Brown 4 Prez” speculation started the following morning. Overnight his favourite breakfast at a local cafe was renamed the Scott Brown special. On his first day at the Senate he was repeatedly asked “Are you going to run for president?” and the ScottBrown2012 domain name has been snapped up.
Darrell Delamaide wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Brown “is to the Republicans now what Barack Obama was to the Democrats in 2004 — a fresh face, a new voice, an ‘overnight success’ who has been working in politics for years”. It was no coincidence that Brown was the only Republican given a name check in his party’s response to Obama’s state of the union speech.
His election rattled Obama. Not only has it given Republicans the crucial 41st vote in the Senate, enabling them to block legislation, but it has also provided them with momentum following disastrous presidential and congressional elections in 2008 and 2006.
It is not just Democrats who are watching with dismay. Brown is also a rather large thorn in the side of Palin, whose presidential ambitions appear to be burgeoning.
Despite being widely blamed for McCain’s disastrous showing against Obama, Palin has transformed herself into the poster girl of the right. The first evidence of her popularity came with her book tour in November when she drew enormous crowds at small towns across America.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years of reporting,” said Andrea Mitchell, who covered the tour for MSNBC. “All these people queuing at 4am or 5am in freezing mornings across the Midwest. She’s sold more than 2m books. That doesn’t happen easily.”
Last weekend, as the keynote speaker at the first national Tea Party convention of conservative activists in Nashville, Palin lampooned Obama’s 2008 election slogans. “How’s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” she asked the adoring audience, who had each paid $549 (£350) for a ticket. Her declaration that “America is ready for another revolution” provoked a standing ovation. As she left the stage the crowd chanted “Run, Sarah, run!”
The following day she made her debut on the Sunday morning television chat show circuit to announce she was considering a presidential bid. “It would be absurd to not consider what it is that I can potentially do to help our country,” she told Fox News. “I won’t close the door that perhaps could be open for me in the future.”
What seemed like madness a few months ago has suddenly become a distinct possibility, according to commentators. David Broder, columnist for The Washington Post, wrote: “The snows that obliterated Washington in the past week interfered with many scheduled meetings, but they did not prevent the delivery of one important political message: take Sarah Palin seriously.”
“I don’t think you can overstate the extent to which she is the dominant figure in the Republican party today, for 2010 and 2012,” agreed Mark Halperin in Time magazine.
Palin attracted derision from many for consulting notes written on her hand while speaking, a system quickly named the “hillbilly Palm Pilot”.
Palin, who has been signed up as a commentator by Fox News, seems to revel in the fact that liberal Americans are horrified by her lack of knowledge, highlighted by her suggestion that her foreign policy credentials were enhanced by Alaska’s proximity to Russia.
“I doubt there is another public figure in the country who gives liberals a bigger case of the hives,” said Rick Perry, Republican governor of Texas. “At the very mention of her name the liberals, the progressives, the media elites — they literally foam at the mouth.”
Palin’s biggest challenge may be Brown, particularly now that he, too, is planning a book. His life story appears to qualify him to achieve Palinesque fame and fortune.
Palin is the frontiers woman who hunts moose, married her childhood sweetheart and brings up five children, including one with Down’s syndrome. Brown is a child of divorced parents, whose mother was on welfare and who says he got “knocked around pretty good” trying to rescue her from violent stepfathers.
“Brown is definitely the better candidate,” said Ron Faucheux, president of Clarus, a non-partisan polling organisation. “He hit the right note and the right message and Republicans need candidates who can do that. There’s a sense of authenticity about him.”
Others question Brown’s man-of-the-people image. “I drive a truck,” he declared in a debate. “And, yes, it has 200,000 miles on it now.” Yet according to The Huffington Post, a review of Brown’s last financial disclosure, filed in 2009, showed he and his wife own five properties, including a timeshare on Aruba, the Caribbean island.
The fact that Palin and Brown are seen as presidential material indicates a widespread disillusion with establishment politicians and also the Republicans’ lack of a heavyweight frontrunner. “It’s unusual for the Republican race to be so open,” said Faucheux. “Usually there would be at least one candidate seen as the heir apparent and the party doesn’t have that this time.”
Despite their celebrity status, neither Palin nor Brown fared well in the most recent opinion poll. According to a Washington Post/ABC poll, 70% feel that Palin is not qualified to be president. Republicans, asked who they favoured as a candidate, put Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, on top with 14%, followed by Palin at 11% and McCain at 7%. Brown got only 4%, although this was ahead of the party stalwarts Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich.
Some have started talking about a Palin-Brown slate as a “dream ticket”. For others it is the ultimate nightmare.