Alaska editorial: Palin's popularity yet to be tested

Posted: Thursday, June 07, 2007

Talk about political capital - with approval numbers around 90 percent, it's no surprise Gov. Sarah Palin mostly got her way during the last legislative session. The only way she could lose an election right now is to run against the Permanent Fund dividend.

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Opposition was more undercurrent than counterforce. Even though most of the smart money - the political and business establishment - is convinced her Alaska Gasline Inducement Act is a dead end, lawmakers gave her the bill she wanted. Murmur they might, but seriously amend? Not against 90 percent.

The Legislature also offered no alternative. And the Legislature was beset with an ongoing federal corruption investigation that isn't over yet. People spoke of a cloud. That was a polite metaphor for the hovering question: "Who's next?"

Compared to the Legislature, Gov. Palin looks like Joan of Arc, with a better smile and personality.

Comparison has worked well for her from the 2006 campaign on. Gov. Frank Murkowski's under-wraps negotiations with the producers for a gas line deal inspired suspicion and even contempt. A deal was chronically just days or weeks away. Days and weeks turned into months and eventually a thumbs-down from lawmakers. Ethical questions dogged the Murkowski administration and its allies, from Gregg Renkes' conflict of interest to coal-bed methane to Republican Party chief Randy Ruedrich.

Compared to that track record, Gov. Palin doesn't have to do much to maintain her popularity. Nothing can beat something when something is that bad. Gov. Palin scores points simply because she's not Frank Murkowski or Ben Stevens or Randy Ruedrich. She is not business as usual or part of an old-boy network currently taking a federal beating. And she owes the network nothing.

Gov. Palin also has been wise in choosing her battles. A social conservative, she has not pushed a social conservative's agenda.

For example, she has mostly stayed out of the fight over state benefits for same-sex couples. She hasn't backed off personal convictions, but hasn't made them public issues.

All this counts.

But it won't be enough.

She has made good on her word by winning gas line legislation on her terms.

However, legislation doesn't build a gas line, and eventually comparisons to previous administrations or to the Legislature's darkest hours won't be enough to sustain that 90 percent - or Alaska's economy.

History won't judge Gov. Palin on her poll numbers. That judgment will be based on what she does with all of this political capital, how she translates tremendous support into long-term gain for Alaska.

Years ahead may be tougher, without the surplus revenue of high oil prices to swell capital budgets and keep services up.

Some of the governor's sharpest critics dismiss her as a lightweight. That's a mistake. She's shown grace under pressure in a tough campaign, delivered on the promises she could so far, and stood her ground in the face of heavyweight oil industry opposition. She hasn't blinked.

She hasn't won yet, either - except by restoring some faith in public office in the first six months of her administration. That's a good start. But the question remains: What's after the honeymoon?

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