The evolution of Sarah Palin

2012 could have looked much different for Sarah Palin. Had the former Alaska governor entered the GOP presidential race, she likely would have been winding her “One Nation” bus tour through the primary states, antagonizing her opponents with quips about being the only candidate not afraid to “go rogue” or rely on her Mama Grizzly instincts.

Instead, she has the heavily marketed HBO movie “Game Change” — which appears to scrutinize her role in the 2008 presidential contest — to look forward to.

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Palin still lands big gigs: She’s billed as the closing speaker at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, which starts Thursday. And she continues to create media dust-ups in a few simple words, as evidenced by her “Vote for Newt; annoy a liberal” comment on Fox News last month.

But ever since she ended her flirtation with a presidential bid last October, signs have pointed to a long, slow descent into the political has-beens basement for Palin. Perhaps the most telling detail is her political action committee’s most recent fundraising numbers. 

SarahPAC raised roughly $756,000 in the second half of 2011, down from the consistent seven-figure reporting periods it had before then.

It looks as though Palin might be morphing into less a political powerhouse and more a reality-television star.

“ ‘Game Change’ will further [her] celebrity,” says Marie Wilson, founder and president emeritus of The White House Project, an organization that works to advance women in politics and business. The movie is scheduled for release next month.

The more celebrity-like she becomes, the less likely it is that she will be able to reemerge as a serious candidate for public office, Wilson and other experts say. The result is a word just a year ago few people would have associated with her: irrelevance. 

“I actually don’t hear anybody talking about her,” Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler says. 

Meckler says Palin never spoke for the Tea Party to begin with but that her message often resonates with Tea Partiers because she isn’t afraid of speaking out against the political establishment.

“She’s just not as central because she stepped out of the political ring and into the media-slash-entertainment ring,” he says. 

When Palin resigned the Alaska governorship in 2009, she said she wanted to unshackle herself from an official title. But in so doing, she also relinquished an establishment platform that lent credence to any political aspirations she might have harbored. Meckler and others say Palin would either have to “throw her hat back in the ring” by running for office or develop an expertise for voters to see her once again as a true politician with potential to lead.

“The reason the McCain campaign selected her was her energy credential,” says University of Pennsylvania political communication Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Palin would need to hone “an issue portfolio that is grounded in expertise” for her to return to politics, Jamieson says. 

But meanwhile, Jamieson and other observers note other rising stars — like Republicans Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.) — are taking up roles she might have filled.

“Now that there are actual politicians … who are also addressing the Tea Party angst and representing that ethos, I think it’s fair to say her influence has diminished some,” conservative commentator S.E. Cupp wrote in an email to The Hill.

One Republican strategist, speaking anonymously, says Palin lost “an amazing amount of influence and coverage” once she decided not to run for president.

It’s a far cry from the Palin-mania that struck the country in 2008.

“I think people even forget that she was governor,” says Democratic strategist Celinda Lake. “I think it’s sad that she’s kind of become a caricature, because she’s obviously smart. But now she’s perceived as smart in a Paris Hilton kind of way.”

Then again, there hasn’t been any public persona quite like Palin. She occupied a space halfway between politics and entertainment from the start of her national debut in 2008, many say.

“I think the way she emerged on the scene — her beauty, her sexuality, to be candid, the way she winked at the audience, her flirtatiousness — all of that made … her early on a combination [of politician and celebrity],” The White House Project’s Wilson says. 

Others say it’s not so much celebrity as it is her true self — Palin being Palin — that attracted people to her four years ago and that can still excite large swaths of the American people.

“Palin was never popular because she was viewed as a celebrity,” conservative commentator Jedediah Bila says. “She was [and] is popular because, in a sea of pre-programmed politicians, she has never been afraid to sound like a regular person and to just be herself.”

The result is that people see themselves in her, Bila says, and believe she means what she says. 

“In politics, that is extremely rare,” she says. “And I think that no matter what she pursues in the future … that trait will go with her.”

What her future holds remains an open question. Though she has trumpeted Newt Gingrich in the GOP presidential primary, she hasn’t backed him formally, and she has yet to indicate whether she’ll make any endorsements in the 2012 congressional races after playing an outsize role in 2010. A request for a comment from SarahPAC on Palin’s plans went unreturned.

“I think that her role moving forward is going to depend on what she does,” Bila says. “Is she going to be an insider and shape what’s happening? Or is she going to be an outsider? And I’m not sure she’s made her decision for the long term.”