When conservative leaders gather in Virginia on Thursday to assess the fallout from the presidential election and start planning their comeback, they will also be taking a closer look at their new potential standard-bearer, Sarah Palin. Most national conservatives have never met the Alaska governor selected as John McCain's running mate on Aug. 29. Says longtime conservative activist Richard Viguerie. "She doesn't know us and we don't know her."
Despite Palin's newfound national profile, she is anything but a sure shot to become the frontrunner for a wounded GOP in 2012. Other young, charismatic Republican governors are waiting in the wings: Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and South Carolina's Mark Sanford are already both well known in the conservative movement and are sure to give Palin tough competition. And former Arkansas governor and 2008 dark horse Mike Huckabee (though he's now detoured from politics with his talk show on the FOX News Channel) is also a potential contender. Palin herself said during an impromptu Election Day interview at the Mocha Moose in Wasilla that, "if there is a role in national politics, it won't be so much partisan." That could come as a surprise to the conservatives surveyed by NEWSWEEK, who say Palin has at least an even shot for 2012. Here, a NEWSWEEK playbook for Palin, should she want to gun for the top job next time around:
Make Friends With Your Friends
When Ronald Reagan lost the GOP nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976, he wasted no time becoming the 1980 frontrunner by setting up his own PAC, and raising money for other GOP candidates around the country. You could start by helping Republican candidates raise money in the 2010 midterms, a strategy that would keep your name in the headlines and at the same time, allow you to put a few favors in the bank, which any good pol knows can be drawn on later. "The more candidates you raise money for the more supporters you have down the line," says Keith Appell, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative public-relations consultant.
Get to Know the People Who ' ve Been Singing Your Praises
The social and conservative leaders who gushed all over television about Palin in the days following her nomination had never met her. They still haven't. Palin, you need to meet with movement leaders at the local, state and national levels, as well as at the grassroots: first to thank them for their support in 2008, and then to butter them up for 2012. You can start with an appearance at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held every February in Washington, and then hit the circuit for the rest of the year. And don't just give the speech and run for the airport. Stick around and schmooze. "Politics is about human relationships," says Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a prominent conservative Christian think tank. "While I think she has a lot of promise, I have never even talked to her. I'd have to gauge her values and intentions. I'd caution anyone to think that just because she held the number two spot she is qualified for number one." And don't forget "Focus on the Family" founder James Dobson. The Christian network is a perfect venue for your base.
Earn a Gravitas Merit Badge — or Two, or Three
Yeah, the Tina Fey thing was fun while it lasted, but don't let yourself be defined as a national laughingstock. Publish a piece in The Wall Street Journal Op Ed page next month, outlining the road back for Republicans. Don't point fingers at McCain—that would be unseemly. Instead, "be substantive and positive," says D.C. media strategist Keith Appell. "Come out against any more bailout packages. Lay out an agenda, talk about an across-the-board tax cut. She could call it the 'Joe the Plumber' bill." After studying the issues (really, really hard) show up on a Sunday morning show. Get your sea legs; do one a quarter, says Appell, so that it doesn't become such a breath-baiting rarity. Go on the speaking circuit. Join trade delegations. No, you can't see China from Alaska, but you can learn an awful lot by using that new passport. Often.
One thing our experts agree on is that Palin should not appoint herself to Ted Stevens' seat, should Alaska's senior senator—convicted last week in a federal corruption trial be forced out. First, it would make her a Washington "insider", thus diluting her charm. Second, with the exception of 2008, Americans rarely elect a senator to the White House. So Palin, keep on being governor. Get re-elected in 2010. Establish your credentials on the "three legs of the conservative stool," advises Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative group. "Become an authority on economic conservatism, foreign policy and defense issues and social issues."
Broaden Your Base
Not all evangelicals are thrilled with Palin. "Bridge outward," advises Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals. "You have to get out of that mentality that it's only the base that matters. It's the independents who matter." Rather than honing her skills as a cultural warrior, says Cizik, Palin should take a page from Reagan's playbook. "If you want to be a conservative, then immerse yourself in great ideas, broaden your horizons. That's what Ronald Reagan did for 25 years. William F. Buckley's strength was that he made intelligence and intellect valuable, not something to despise." By focusing so much on class warfare, says Cizik, Palin has limited her appeal. "Her kind of campaign suggests that Christian conservatives are outcasts who need to be seduced to run against the elites," says Cizik. "That's very outdated thinking." It's OK to pal around with conservative intellectuals like William Kristol, Fred Barnes and Michael Gerson, the former Bush speechwriter.
You need a fat bank account to run on the national stage. Ask Hillary Clinton. And God knows, you don't want reporters pawing through your mortgage records in 2012; better to pay the whole thing off. But how? Alaska's ethics laws preclude cashing in as governor with a TV gig or speaking fees. If you don't run for re-election in 2010, you can cash in. According to the Hollywood Reporter, several producers are working on "the ideal on-air deal vehicle" for you. According to the trade paper, those options include a reality show on your family, or an afternoon talk show. A cable deal, a la Mike Huckabee's recent show on FOX, is another option. But resist the temptations. If you continue to brand yourself as a celebrity, it's going to be hard for people to take your seriously. "The spotlight is good," says Wright. "But not if it's done in a way that trivializes the person."
Let's just say you decide not to run for re-election. That gives you two years between 2010 and 2012 to fill the till. After all, Tina Fey just landed a book deal estimated between $3 and $4 million. Publishing sources say a tell-all about your weeks as McCain's running mate could yield a similar paycheck. But beware of appearing venal or ungrateful. After all, these are the guys who called you a "diva" when you were still on the ticket. A lot of Americans have doubts that you ever read a book. Show them you can write one. But make it the right one.