NEW YORK - When Sarah Palin abruptly stepped down as Alaska governor in July before the end of her first term, many questioned how she could maintain a national presence without the platform of elected office.
That hasn't proven a problem for the onetime Republican vice presidential nominee, who has kept herself at the center of political debate with a best-selling book, an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and controversial Facebook postings. Now Palin has found another way to stay in the spotlight: by signing on as a contributor for the top-rated Fox News Channel.
Palin, who will make her debut tonight on "The O'Reilly Factor," will appear regularly as a commentator on the network. She'll also be one of the hosts of an occasional series called "Real American Stories" about how everyday Americans cope with challenges.
With her hiring, Fox News gets a high-profile figure whose pronouncements on issues such as health care reform have helped drive contentious partisan debate - it was her Facebook post that first raised the term "death panels."
"She is one of the most talked about and politically polarizing figures in the country," said Bill Shine, the network's executive vice president of programming. "First off, we hope she brings that."
Palin, in turn, gets a large megaphone. Last year, Fox News drew a record primetime audience of nearly 2.2 million viewers, more than CNN and MSNBC combined, according to Nielsen.
But whether Palin is able to use her perch at the network to enhance her stature for a possible 2012 presidential run remains to be seen.
"It will be hard for her to use this broaden her political base," said Darrell M. West, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution and author of the book "Celebrity Politics." "It will strengthen her support among conservatives, but she already does well among that group."
Republican strategist David Carney, a veteran of the first Bush White House, said Palin was canny to sign up for a limited role on Fox News. The occasional, selected appearance "is probably safer for keeping her presidential possibilities open than a daily show where she'd have to come up with something innovative and entertaining and provocative for 42 minutes, five days a week," he said.
Still, Marty Kaplan, a former Democratic speechwriter and director of USC's Norman Lear Center, which studies the impact of entertainment on society, said Palin's new gig will not help her overcome her biggest vulnerability: her limited experience in public office. When she left office, she had 18 months remaining in her first term.
It is not unusual for a presidential aspirant to play pundit. From 1975 to 1979, Ronald Reagan helped build his national following by delivering more than 1,000 three-minute radio broadcasts on subjects ranging from the Soviet Union to personal reflections on marriage, religion, war and death.
But no one has ever moved from a TV studio to the Oval Office. Patrick J. Buchanan, a combative staple on the cable talk-show circuit, tried three times and failed to win the presidency.