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Sarah Palin speaks, but are Americans heeding her anymore?

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Stephan Savoia/AP

(Read caption) Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin addresses a Tea Party Express rally in Manchester, N.H., in September.

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Long live Sarah Palin?

The former GOP vice-presidential candidate is back in the news, tangling with Washington insiders such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut over alleged insider trading and "sweetheart land deals" by members of Congress (see also Tuesday's op-ed in USA Today) and shopping a new reality TV series featuring her husband, Todd.

The one-time GOP kingmaker – who said Oct. 5 she would not run for the party's presidential nomination but who has yet to endorse a candidate – proved to be a force to be reckoned with during the 2010 midterm elections. But analysts now are divided over Ms. Palin's political influence on the election cycle ahead, with some saying her star has waned so far it's about to drop into the ocean and others noting that she remains popular with her base and is even "electable."

“Palin is trying to reposition herself to have influence in the upcoming political season,” says Atlanta-based Republican strategist David Johnson, an adviser to Sen. Robert Dole during his 1988 presidential campaign. This is a tough path, because she has lost so much credibility with even her committed followers. “Many expected her to carry their values forward, and instead she seemed more interested in pursuing her own celebrity," he says.

Others see that path as all but impossible. Palin has become nearly irrelevant, says Tom Fiedler, former executive editor of the Miami Herald and now dean of Boston University’s College of Communication. “America’s fascination with Sarah Palin is like everyone’s fascination with a shiny and sleek new car that hints of fun and adventure,” he says. But if it quits early, or if it refuses to run at all, “preferring to sit at the curb and look nice, our fascination will quickly die."

Palin quit as Alaska’s governor midway through her first term, he notes, and she refused to answer supporters’ pleas to enter the GOP presidential race. “She’s become the Kim Kardashian of politics,” he adds, “famous only for being famous.”

As if to drive home that point, the TLC and A&E cable networks are both reported to be passing on a pitch for a second Palin-based reality TV series. The first, "Sarah Palin's Alaska," sold for roughly $1 million per episode and racked up 5 million viewers. But the latest idea – which would feature Todd Palin's snowmobiling adventures – is going begging, reports the trade publication The Hollywood Reporter.  

Palin's "sell by" date is past, agrees Dorothy James, a government professor at Connecticut College in New London. “There are newer Republican hopefuls who are sucking the oxygen out of any hopes she may have,” she says via e-mail. “She lacks the discipline to do the hard slog of running for national office on her own or actually governing.” 

But Palin retains a strong base of political support, note others who are not so quick to write her off.

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“Is Palin electable? Absolutely,” says Mark Tatge, visiting professor of journalism at DePauw University’s Center for Contemporary Media.

Palin could deliver a certain base of people a presidential ticket with, say, Newt Gingrich at the top, he says. “Such a partnership is not out of the question,” he says, although Palin will have to find a way to “atone for quitting the job of governor.”

Less-likely candidates, he says, have made it to the top spot. “Consider the former B-movie actor who was seen as a bit of a lightweight with a messy divorce in his past,” says Professor Tatge, “and Ronald Reagan not only got elected but went on to become a two-term president.”

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