On Thursday morning, in a wooded rear parking lot cordoned off with police tape, Sarah Palin stepped out of a big black sport-utility vehicle and entered through the gaudy gates of the Crest Hollow Country Club. She wore a dour black skirt and matching blouse; a bulky red, white and blue wrist band; and a pair of leopard print heels.
Ms. Palin was not in Woodbury to rally her rowdy base–in fact, her SUV had breezed by some Tea Partiers gathered at the club’s entrance–but to address the membership of the Long Island Association, the state’s largest business group.
There to greet her was Kevin Law, the group’s president. Mr. Law had briefly considered booking other 2012 contenders–Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee were available–but only one was capable of generating buzz equal to that of the LIA’s last speaker, former president Bill Clinton.
“There’s a lot of intrigue,” said Mr. Law. “It’s like, who is this woman? Is she real? Is she running for president? Or is she running to be rich and famous?”
Since her controversial turn as John McCain’s running mate, Ms. Palin has leveraged her polarizing personality into a lucrative quasi-campaign premised on exactly those questions.
The intrigue has allowed Ms. Palin to milk her moment for six-figure speaking fees and a gold-plated contract as a Fox News contributor.
But her high-wattage tour of America, while officially not about 2012, has attracted presidential-level attention for a reason. It has essentially put the Republican primary process on hold, as other candidates, as well as major operatives and donors, wait to see what she’s going to do before moving too aggressively to commit themselves in any direction. Despite her middling poll numbers, the mere threat of her candidacy has become the main event.
“It’s chilled their operations,” said Ross Baker, a political affairs professor at Rutgers University. “I think the game that she’s playing is kind of a political striptease, in which everybody is kind of hovering around, waiting for the ultimate revelation. She’s jerking a lot of chains. And I think she really enjoys it.”
Ms. Palin seemed to be enjoying herself on Thursday.
By all accounts, she was gracious and gregarious at a pre-luncheon reception for the day’s top sponsors, who had paid handsomely for a handshake and a photo. She chatted amiably, signed copies of her books, smiled for a whole line of photos and answered questions about her dangly earrings. (Whalebone!)
Later, sitting on the dais, in front of a blue curtain lined with 21 American flags, Ms. Palin took her name card, wrote a little note on it–“Dear Kevin, thank you so much for having me. God bless you, Sarah Palin”–and placed it next to Mr. Law’s plate.
When the two of them finally rose to take her seat for an hour-long question-and-answer session, a crush of flashbulbs swarmed to greet her.
In the weeks leading up to her visit, there had been signs that the media might be growing weary of her will-I-or-won’t-I act.
On Jan. 16, The New York Times’ resident conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, called the courtship between Ms. Palin and the press a “twisted, wretched, ruinous relationship,” and urged reporters to stop taking her seriously as a presidential contender.
Five days later, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank declared February a Palin-free month, an exercise in restraint that he encouraged other writers to join.
But most of the press remains powerless to resist.
By 9 a.m., a dozen cameramen were already waiting to erect their tripods on a two-tiered riser at the back of the room, and by 10 a.m., all of the seats in the reporters’ anteroom had been spoken for. (“Does this seat look open?” grumbled one Associated Press reporter who was guarding a seat for a colleague.)
All of the major networks were in attendance–ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News–along with several local affiliates, a few glossy magazines–Newsweek, National Review–a handful of daily papers–The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily News, the New York Post and Newsday–and a smattering of wire services and radio outlets.