JUNEAU - Driving home at night from her office at the Capitol, the leader of Alaska's House Democrats, Rep. Beth Kerttula, often passes the governor's white-columned mansion and wonders why there aren't more lights on.
She assumes Gov. Sarah Palin is out of town, though Palin's staff says so far their boss has been in the capital most of the legislative session, which began Jan. 20.
It's a small matter, but it's part of the buzz around the Capitol among lawmakers who are seeing less of their governor than in past years and wondering what it means in the wake of a vice presidential run that brought Palin global fame and notoriety.
They're used to spotting Palin striding past, deftly working her two Blackberries, stopping to chat in the hallway or inviting reporters in while she prepares for a speech.
Palin insists her focus is still on Alaska.
"I swore to steadfastly and doggedly guard the interests of this great state like a grizzly with cubs," she said in her State of the State address two days after the start of session.
"We've got to fight for each other, not against, and not let external sensationalized distractions draw us off course."
Some say she appears more tense than the vice presidential candidate who delivered sly jokes and incendiary speeches to packed rallies across the Lower 48.
"Not so sparky," said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, who wonders if the distractions of her newfound celebrity will keep Palin from devoting her full attention to Alaska's looming budget shortfall.
Others grumble that she didn't seem to reach out to the nearly 60 lawmakers assembled before her.
"I think her speech was not directed to us but right over our heads to a national audience," said Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, who remembers a much different Palin from just six months ago.
"There were days when she walked around the building with (her daughter) Piper handing out bagels. I think those days are gone," he added with a touch of wistfulness.
Speculation that Palin is positioning herself for a presidential run in 2012 was fueled by news that she formed a political action committee and planned to attend a dinner at the elite Alfalfa Club in Washington D.C.
"The half-life of political celebrity is really quite short, so she has to make a move," said Larry Sabato of the Virginia-based Center for Politics.
Some pundits say Palin should go after U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's seat in 2010, but Sabato doubts Palin would win that contest.
He said she would do better to run for re-election and launch a presidential run from her second term as governor. She'll have to prove that she's engaged and energized over Alaska issues, though.
"If she gives any indication that she's bored, she will literally get herself in trouble with what would otherwise be a slam dunk re-election," Sabato said.
Some lawmakers say Palin has already proved she's engaged.
"So far, I've seen the governor deliver her energy package, she delivered her budget on time and she met with the majority caucus," said Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole. "I've not seen or heard anyone come up with anything the executive is supposed to be doing that she has not done. It appears to me she's back on the job full-time."
Palin's spokesman says her press office continues to receive hundreds of media requests for interviews with Palin, most of which she turns down. She has yet to hold a press conference at the Capitol this year.
However, just a few days ago, she walked out of the mansion after meeting with majority lawmakers and took press questions. Gone was the entourage and Secret Service agents that shadowed her this fall, and she greeted a small group of reporters with a cheery, "Hi guys," as she addressed the issue of her priorities.
"I'm sure legislators know I am the governor of Alaska, and this is first and foremost on my mind and my agenda. Any travel or meeting or participation outside of Alaska will only be if its good for Alaska," she said.
Juneau Democrat Kim Elton, a member of the bipartisan Senate majority, predicts Palin will be tested this session.
"Is she going to have a legislative agenda that speaks to a national base, or is she going to have a legislative base that speaks to Alaska's future? It's a legitimate question. I'm not sure it's easy to answer at this time, but I can assure you people will be watching very closely," Elton said.
Palin worked closely with Democrats her first two years. They're more wary now after witnessing her inflammatory campaign rhetoric and her campaign staff's efforts to discredit Democrats in charge of a bipartisan legislative abuse-of-power investigation this fall.
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