LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. » The latest candidate to win the most coveted Republican prize of the election year stood on the steps of a gazebo here and reminded voters of a new reason to support her in the crowded race for Georgia governor.
"Sarah Palin has come on board," the candidate, Karen Handel, told a group of supporters who gathered Friday on the grounds of the Gwinnett Historic Courthouse. As they broke into applause, she added: "It means one thing. We’re winning."
Last week, Handel became at least the 50th candidate to win the Palin seal of approval. Through a breezy 194 words posted on Palin’s Facebook page—calling Handel a "pro-life, pro-Constitutionalist with a can-do attitude"—a four-way Republican primary came alive, the latest in a number of races across the country that have been influenced by Palin.
One year after leaving public office behind, defiantly stepping down as governor of Alaska to become a best-selling author and a television celebrity, Palin has waded deeply back into electoral politics, and she plans to increase her visibility on the campaign trail after Labor Day.
That she is leaving a major footprint on the 2010 midterm elections is not disputed, but less clear is whether the endorsements are rooted in an effort to amplify her image or to create a political strategy for the future.
When her organization, SarahPAC, filed its quarterly financial report last week, it prompted fresh speculation about her political ambitions for 2012. She raised $866,000 and donated $87,500 to Republican candidates—the biggest tallies in both categories since she opened the political action committee last year, but hardly exceptional for a prospective presidential candidate.
After parting ways with Sen. John McCain following the 2008 presidential race, she did not receive the list of campaign donors she had helped build, so her aides have been creating her own roster, a critical ingredient to a future political bid. More than half of her contributions have come from Texas, Tennessee, Florida, California and New York, but she received donations from all 50 states.
She has extended many of her endorsements to women, whom she refers to as "Mama Grizzlies." (One exception is Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, whose male opponent Palin endorsed.) But some of her decisions have been met with resistance from social conservatives who argue that her selections are guided by politics over principle.
In Iowa, Christian conservatives criticized her for passing over their candidate in favor of a former governor, Terry Branstad. And the biggest furor so far has erupted here, with a leader of an anti-abortion group, Georgia Right to Life, accusing Palin of "endorsing any female Republican candidate that she could find." Rival candidates complained that Palin was backing the most liberal Republican in the race.
Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, dismissed the matter as petty politics on Friday as her bus tour passed through Lawrenceville, about 30 miles east of Atlanta. She said her fellow Republicans "would be equally as thrilled to have Sarah Palin’s endorsement as I have been."
But worried about the fallout in the days leading up to the primary on Tuesday, she turned to Palin for validation.
"The primary is really close, so Karen’s opponents are kind of saying those crazy things about her," Palin said in a phone message to thousands of Georgia voters. "Please just get the truth for yourself."
Palin has offered her long-distance support to Handel and other candidates, but her campaign appearances have been rare. She has delivered a few policy addresses in recent months and seemed to be moving beyond the family drama that often enveloped her.
That changed last week, when her daughter, Bristol, announced on the cover of Us Weekly that she was engaged to her former boyfriend, Levi Johnston, stirring a fresh reminder of the circus-like atmosphere that accompanied the Palins’ arrival to the national scene two years ago.
Palin devotes the majority of her time to her own projects, including appearances as a commentator on Fox News and work on a second book, "America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag," to be released in November. She is in a position to exert tremendous influence at the grass-roots level without engaging in the give and take of regular campaigning or relinquishing her earning power.
Still, Republican candidates across the country continue to clamor for her support, even if it is unlikely that she will ever arrive in their districts for a rally.
Like other national political figures, Palin has been supporting candidates all year, a mix of Tea Party enthusiasts like Rand Paul of Kentucky and a slate of establishment Republicans. But her endorsements did not gain much notice until she weighed in on the South Carolina governor’s race, vaulting Nikki Haley from the bottom rung of candidates to the winner of the Republican nomination last month.
For most candidates, Palin endorsements arrive as if they are a gift from a secret Santa, with words of support suddenly popping up on Facebook without notice. She reached a New York congressional candidate, Ann Marie Buerkle, in her home last week, telling her that an endorsement had been posted online.
"She was just lovely," recalled Buerkle, whose race has been ignored by party leaders. "She made us legitimate."
When Palin announced her backing of Mary Fallin in the Oklahoma governor’s contest, the other Republican in the race testily denounced the endorsement. That candidate, Randy Brogdon, declared, "Stop acting like you are owed the governor’s mansion, and stop hiding behind the skirt of Sarah Palin."
Fallin, a two-term member of Congress who hopes to become the first woman to be governor of Oklahoma, dismissed the criticism from her opponent as sexist.
"Sarah is at the top of my list to receive an endorsement from," Fallin said in an interview. "Even a lot of Democrats and independents admire her spunk and her willingness to stand up for what she believes and say what’s on her mind."
While the endorsements often land as a surprise—in Iowa, Branstad did not get the word until Palin called his campaign headquarters—increasingly the decisions are less spontaneous than they may appear.
Her choices in governors’ races have hewed closely to preferred candidates of the Republican Governors Association, including in Iowa, where the presidential race begins. And after a long stretch in which most Republican operatives had no idea how to reach Palin, a formal structure has taken shape and a researcher on her staff reviews information candidates provide in a quest to earn her support.
"SarahPAC is trying to be in a position to have the resources for the governor to do whatever she wants between now and November 2010," said Tim Crawford, treasurer of the committee.
Fred Malek, a Republican fundraiser who is a friend and supporter of Palin, said it would be incorrect to view her role in the midterm elections through the prism of the 2012 presidential race.
Malek said she does not seek his counsel—nor that of any other Republican establishment figure—in deciding whether to support a candidate. "She carefully watches what’s going on in the political world and makes decisions based on who she thinks deserves support," Malek said.
Indeed, the endorsements provide little evidence that she is moving closer to a presidential run. A willingness to inject herself into so many primary fights and aggravate the supporters of the candidates she overlooks is a risky way of building establishment support.
In conversations with Republicans in recent months, including at a rally Palin held with McCain in Arizona, at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans and at campaign events here in Georgia, voters often give Palin high marks. But asked whether they believe she should run for president, few say yes.
Judy Pruitt, a 70-year-old retiree in Lawrenceville, said she came to see Handel partly because of the Palin endorsement. But she had a swift answer when asked if she would welcome a 2012 Palin campaign .
"I’m not sure she’s ready for the presidency," she said. "I do like listening to her and I respect her views on things. But I think she can have more of an impact if she’s not running, I really do."