There were two reporters from Politico (which, according to Mr. Milbank, had written 96 Palin items in a single month).
And then there was the foreign press: one camera from Swedish television, one columnist from Italy’s Il Stampa and two reporters from the Japan’s daily the Asahi Shimbun.
Before Ms. Palin had even arrived, the coffee in the press room had run dry, and the hotel was setting up more tables to accommodate the overflow.
All of this, despite the fact Ms. Palin would–and did–avoid taking any questions from the media, and was all but certain to demur on her presidential ambitions.
“You have a lot of candidates who have the potential to grow, but if there’s even the potential for Sarah Palin to get in, they won’t grow,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster.
Those candidates include nearly all of the new blood at the national level who have yet to make recognizable names for themselves, like Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor; Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels; and Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania.
“The margin-of-error candidates, those who are under 3 or 4 percent right now, she’s taking oxygen and media attention from them that they need to develop a candidacy,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “So she’s hurting them right now.”
Mr. Daniels caught a bit of air with an impassioned speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference–though much of the media was gone by the time he spoke.
And just this week, Mr. Pawlenty scored what counts as a minor breakthrough in this cycle, with a caricature of him playing hockey–”Tim Pawlenty’s Shot”–on the cover of National Review.
But the relative lack of coverage has left candidates without the kind of documentary evidence they can take to big donors to show that their campaign is taking off, which has left the contributor class to guess about who might be capable of gaining traction.
“At the end of the day, most big donors want to be with a winner,” said one uncommitted donor. But no one is quite sure if that winning profile might be a new face, or one of the out-of-office standbys, like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, or former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, or even former New York Governor George Pataki.
With Ms. Palin lingering, the dynamics of the race are nearly impossible to predict.
Four years ago, with a narrow field of contenders, most big donors had already cast their lot, and the campaigns had constructed well-oiled fund-raising machines that bankrolled a bidding war for the top political talent. But if there is an arms race on the horizon this cycle, it seems destined for some distant quarter.
“Nobody’s hired any staff because nobody’s raising any money,” said a Republican strategist who served as a top adviser in 2008.
In January, Mr. Romney became the first candidates to fill a couple of key vacancies, announcing he had hired a political director and a pollster.
But most of the consulting world is still on the sidelines.
“Right now, I’m like a lot of the voters, seeing who’s getting in, and what their message is,” said Mr. McLaughlin, the pollster.
So far, Ms. Palin’s operation has shown the ability to churn along without any high-level hires.
On Long Island, she was accompanied only by her daughter Bristol and an event manager from her speaking agency, the Washington Speakers Bureau.
During the campaign, Ms. Palin was said to be choosing which candidates to endorse based largely on her own online research, rooted primarily in which campaigns made the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, and how they stood with the Tea Party.
On Long Island, Ms. Palin had enlisted Bristol’s help.
“Last night, I’m in my hotel room and I’ve got my entourage with me–that would be Bristol,” she told the crowd, to laughs. “And I’m asking Bristol, I’m telling her, you’ve got to Google some stuff for me, you’ve got to look up some stats and some figures for me,” said Ms. Palin, who came armed with a binder of materials that included a 1964 Reader’s Digest that decried President Johnson’s war on poverty.
Last week, Ms. Palin hired a new chief of staff, Michael Glassner, who served as an aide to her vice presidential campaign in 2008.
Mr. Glassner, who has a reputation for being an extremely low-profile operative, did not join her in Woodbury. But by all accounts, Mr. Glassner, a native Kansan who now lives in New Jersey, is the kind of organizational dynamo that could quietly lay the groundwork for a national campaign. He managed Bob Dole’s 1992 reelection campaign and was a top adviser on the senator’s presidential bid in 1996.
“You won’t see him talking to the media. You won’t find a lot of places where he’s been quoted in his career,” said Bill Lacy, a friend and former Dole adviser. “He’s very behind the scenes, very loyal, very committed.”