WASHINGTON — Most of us don’t begin the summer by crashing the annual Memorial Day weekend gathering of bikers at Rolling Thunder, a Washington event to honor veterans. But most of us are not Sarah Palin. While Republican presidential contenders Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty are holding traditional coffee klatches in Iowa and New Hampshire, Palin is on the road.
More important, she is on our television screens. Amid 250,000 drinking and tattooed bikers wearing leather vests, packs of smokes rolled up in their T-shirt sleeves, Palin kicked off her East Coast bus tour by riding from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the back of a hog. Try ignoring that on a slow news day.
Palin alone knows whether her motorcycle ride was the first leg of a presidential run or the start of an unusual family vacation. Actually, even she may not know. What she does know is that she needs to freshen her populist brand every so often with a sprinkling of presidential dust. In recent weeks, she added a couple of political operatives to the skeletal staff overseen by her husband, Todd. For more convenient access to the lower 48, she bought a house in a fashionable suburb of Phoenix. A full- length film featuring her political rise debuts this summer — in Iowa.
Brand Palin needs some refurbishing. “America by Heart,” her second book, sold 70 percent fewer copies than her first effort, “Going Rogue,” according to Publishers Weekly. After a boffo start, ratings for her television show, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” plummeted. The last time she commandeered the media spotlight, she made a video accusing her critics of a “blood libel” for having linked her semi-automatic rhetoric with the Tucson shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. She looked petty in the midst of a national tragedy.
In addition, there’s now a tell-all book by a former Palin aide that makes Richard Nixon look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm compared to Palin and her Alaskan posse. Only 44 percent of Republicans view Palin favorably, according to an October CBS News poll.
Until she took to the road over Memorial Day, Palin had been uncharacteristically quiet lately, taking a back seat to other candidates, including a few who are candidates no more: Fox News host Mike Huckabee, “Celebrity Apprentice” boss Donald Trump and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
But Palin kick-started her Harley just in time to muffle Rep. Michele Bachmann’s expected announcement of her candidacy. Bachmann said she doesn’t consider Palin “a competitor.” Palin may feel otherwise. While Bachmann is striving for attention, Palin will be generating buzz by inviting another presidential candidate onto her bus —Herman Cain, an African-American pizza magnate who presents no threat to her.
Unlike Bachmann, Mitt Romney, the unloved front-runner, could actually be helped by Palin. He doesn’t mind the media chasing after a shinier object while he continues his quest to get right with the Republican base on health care. (He offered his best formulation to date, telling the Boston Globe that “the health of the people of Massachusetts is more important to me than the health of my political prospects.”) If Palin enters the fray, the Republican establishment will turn its lonely eyes to Romney to stop her.
Even if she only flirts with a run, Palin can still be toxic to the hopes of others. Conservatives in Iowa are just beginning to warm to Tim Pawlenty, who has been morphing from a mild-mannered former governor of bluish Minnesota to Dirty Harry. He has abandoned his support for cap-and-trade legislation and, unlike the more cautious Romney, has embraced Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial plan to transform Medicare into a private insurance system. The Iowa straw poll scheduled for August 13 is widely considered a must-win for Pawlenty. If Palin, who is much-loved by Iowa conservatives, is anywhere near Ames that day, Pawlenty is in trouble.
Whether she is aiming for “the fundamental restoration of America,” the restoration of her celebrity or even a genuine run for president, Palin’s proving she’s still a player. Reporters fanned out from Fort McHenry in Baltimore to Gettysburg,Pa., trying to keep up with her bus, which is painted with “We the People,” a map of the United States and the Liberty Bell. Her impact is immediate, her timing shrewd. The best moment to shake up the field of 2012 candidates is before it’s settled.
MARGARET CARLSON is a Bloomberg View columnist.