Palin keeps 2012 guessing game going

Since bursting onto the national scene in 2008, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s image has been plagued by her erratic behavior.

Her comments at multiple events over the Labor Day weekend emphasized as much.

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During her visit to Iowa, she sounded ready to make a presidential bid, firing off a couple shots at the Republican Party’s current field of candidates and claiming there was room in the race for more. 

But then she flew to New Hampshire and added a few important caveats — ones that, once again, seemed to change the equation.

It all started on Friday night when Palin arrived in the Hawkeye State, where she told reporters there was “room for more” candidates. 

The message was unmistakable. Palin knew the world was waiting to see if she’d announce a run, and it was nearly unthinkable that she was referring to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or other candidates who’ve already said they won’t run. Instead, it was part of what Matt Drudge recently headlined “The Big Tease.”

She teased even more the next day with a fiery address at a Tea Party rally. The speech was a call for a more ideologically pure movement, one that would be anchored by a presumably more conservative candidate.

“The challenge is not simply to replace [President] Obama in 2012,” she said; it “is who and what we will replace him with.”

Then, in a warning that seemed aimed directly at her party, she cautioned, “Folks, you know it’s not enough to change the uniform.” She also seemed to throw in a few shots at specific candidates wearing that uniform. She warned the audience about “career politicians” and possibly corruptible “GOP candidates” who “raise mammoth amounts of cash.”

Those references might have been impossibly abstract, if only Texas Gov. Rick Perry hadn’t been accused of each of those things in the past month. Indeed, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his surrogates have called Perry a “career politician” who doesn’t understand how the private sector works. 

Palin’s indirect shot at Perry was even more notable because some have questioned how she would distinguish herself from the Tea Party-friendly Texas governor if she jumped in the race. And Palin’s message in Iowa could not have been clearer: She would run as a populist who would attack Romney and Perry for their ties to big money.

But then Palin flew to New Hampshire, where her tone  changed suddenly. 

New Hampshire Palin seemed much more interested in unity than purity during her address to a Tea Party group. She called the growing dissension in the grassroots conservative movement “media-incited internal squabbles” that weren’t worth indulging.

“Our challenges today are too great,” she said. “We simply don’t have time to be bogged down in internal conflicts and friendly-fire conflicts.

The call to unity was notable because Palin has had a long history of stoking intraparty conflict. She’s publicly feuded with a number of prominent conservatives, such as Karl Rove and Charles Krauthammer, and talked of “woodshed” moments for the GOP in the 2010 primary elections. 

As for the future, presidential primaries are all about “internal conflicts and friendly-fire conflicts,” and Palin has never seemed particularly interested in bringing a broad coalition of ideologies and interests into the Republican tent. But in New Hampshire on Monday, in that first primary state in the nation, she was suddenly calling for unity when the division is just about to begin.

That immediately prompted a new round of speculation, supplanting Saturday’s.

The new meme is, once again, that Palin is leaning toward playing kingmaker; that she’s more interested in currying the eternal gratitude from one very fortunate endorsee than subjecting herself to another grueling national campaign.

But she still hasn’t ruled out a presidential bid.

And that dichotomy has been a source of frustration for some political junkies, who have watched the way she has continually veered from candidate to kingmaker. 

Over Labor Day weekend, she seemed to flirt with each role. Indeed, Palin seems to be trying to find the role that best suits her. But we’re now in the eleventh hour of casting calls. She’s learned her lines, she’s shown up, and now we’re all waiting for the curtain to rise.

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.