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Commentary: What Alaska learned about Palin

  • Story Highlights
  • Year of Alaska's 50th anniversary as a state brought new attention
  • Campaign put spotlight on Alaska and its governor, Sarah Palin
  • Kaylene Johnson: Palin played new role of hard-line partisan
  • Palin has some fence-mending to do at home as she returns, Johnson says
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By Kaylene Johnson
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Kaylene Johnson is the author of the Sarah Palin biography "Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Politics Upside Down." She has written for the Los Angeles Times, Alaska magazine and other publications.

Kaylene Johnson says Sarah Palin's role on the national scene didn't match her role in Alaska.

WASILLA, Alaska (CNN) -- In a year when Alaska celebrates 50 years of statehood, it can be argued that our state finally joined the union August 29, 2008, when Gov. Sarah Palin was nominated by Sen. John McCain as his vice presidential running mate.

Suddenly, everything Alaskan and everything Sarah came under micro-scrutiny as media from all over the world descended on small-town Alaska to find out more about the woman who held the possibility of becoming the most powerful leader in the world.

In the harsh light of that scrutiny, we learned a few things about our governor. And we learned a few things about ourselves. What surprised many Alaskans was the warrior persona that grew up around Palin as she took on the role of partisan pit bull.

Although she campaigned against rabid partisanship in her bid for the governor's office, we learned that when the job calls for it, she is capable and willing to become a hard-liner for her party. Her legacy as governor, however, has been based more on cooperation than confrontation.

Many of her staunchest supporters here were Democrats who appreciated her willingness to reach across the aisle to get the job done. With team spirit and a singular vision, Palin achieved more progress in two years toward the development of a natural gas pipeline than the previous two administrations put together.

She ushered in reform at a time when Alaskan legislators were being convicted of corruption, and she welcomed an investigation that would clear her of wrongdoing in what became known as Troopergate.

Once Palin became McCain's VP pick, the investigation became politically charged, and many of the alliances Palin had created across party lines became strained.

From the McCain/Palin perspective, the investigation had become a political witch hunt. Conversely, Democrats accused the McCain/Palin camp of stonewalling. And so it went, with Palin burning some hard-won political capital right up to the day before the election, when the state's personnel board exonerated her.

Her popularity before being launched on the national stage was more than 80 percent; today, her popularity in the state ranges between 64 and 68 percent, figures enviable to most politicians in America. Even so, she will have some political fences to mend on the home front.

People close to Palin told me early in the campaign that the McCain camp's "handling" of Sarah Palin was unfortunate not only to Palin but to the campaign.

Putting a muzzle and straitjacket on her and then scripting her so tightly that she came across as foolish was a "colossal blunder," according to one of Palin's closest aides. Her national poll numbers grew increasingly negative.

Even so, Palin drew enormous, enthusiastic crowds throughout the country and energized McCain's flagging candidacy, not a bad debut for a newcomer to the national political stage.

Home-grown supporters were willing to take to the streets in Alaska and across the nation to seek a victory. One group of supporters organized, calling themselves Alaskans for Reform.

One of the organizers, Mary Havens, told me that after their offers to volunteer were rebuffed by the McCain camp, they set up their own shop, conducted rallies and raised $24,000 for the campaign.

Many of these hard-core enthusiasts were the same people who succeeded in their grass-roots, statewide effort to put Palin in office in the first place. Through groups like Alaskans for Reform, we learned that Alaskans don't need anyone's permission to stand up for what they believe. What next for Palin?

The people who know Sarah Palin best say that she joined the McCain campaign with a sincere desire to do what was best for America. She hoped that she would succeed in helping John McCain ascend to the presidency.

Instead, she stood by McCain as he made a concession speech congratulating Sen. Barack Obama on winning the White House. The next day, in Palin's more characteristic style, she called on Americans to unite in supporting the new administration as the nation faces the challenges that lie ahead.

As for 2012, if Palin chooses to run for the presidency, she will now know just how intensely personal and ugly a campaign can get. She will have the traction of being a household name. She will have more experience. And perhaps most important, she'll be running for office on her own terms.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kaylene Johnson.

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