Which Sarah Palin is coming back to finish her term as governor of Alaska?
The pragmatic centrist who built effective coalitions with Democrats and reform-minded Republicans and declined to legislate her socially conservative values?
Or the highly partisan Sarah Palin who tried to tar her political opponent with terms like "socialist" and "terrorist," while touting her stands on divisive issues like abortion and same-sex marriage?
The latter version of Sarah Palin is what made a huge hit with conservative crowds on the national campaign trail.
The former approach is what made her such a wildly popular governor here in Alaska.
Her obligations as governor point her in one direction. Her national ambitions point her in another.
It's obvious which Sarah Palin Alaskans need to see in the next two years. Alaskans elected her to be governor, not to give her a platform to run for president in 2012. Alaskans chose her because she promised a different way of doing business, not more of the same mindless partisan warfare.
Most immediate on Palin's to-do list is cleaning up unfinished business from the Troopergate controversy. One investigation said she broke state ethics law; another said she didn't. She should welcome a public process for debating and resolving the contradictions between the two findings.
Palin has yet to fire her ethically compromised pal Frank Bailey, who pressured troopers to fire her ex-brother-in-law - implying that he was acting on the governor's behalf - and pressured the state bureaucracy to hire a Palin campaign supporter who wasn't qualified for the job. Then there's the fact Palin used private e-mail accounts in a way that eliminated potentially relevant evidence in the Troopergate investigations.
Beyond Troopergate, Palin needs to steer the state onto a path that produces a sustainable budget. She enjoyed a respite from the financial strain of steadily declining oil production, but oil prices have returned to more normal levels. Precarious federal finances will likely shrink Alaska's pipeline of funding from the national treasury. Today's financial reality foreshadows tougher times ahead.
Another big job awaiting Palin: keeping the gas line moving forward. Lawmakers will face a clamor for state tax changes the North Slope gas holders say they need to make the project work. On the other side, some are already promoting a natural gas reserves tax; they hope it will force the gas holding companies to help expedite a pipeline.
Certain high-risk federal moves could help the project to secure financing; but a Democratic Congress and president may not be inclined to help former political adversaries such as Palin, Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens.
Rural Alaska is another challenge awaiting Palin, and it needs more of her attention than it has gotten. Remote communities had to buy a full winter's worth of fuel at this summer's record-high prices. Residents got some help from the state's one-time $1,200-a-person energy rebate, but the crushing cost of energy and generally weak rural economy means the future of Alaska's remote, largely Native communities is precarious.
Palin's run for vice president turned the eyes of the world onto Alaska. It was a profoundly exciting time in the state's history. Alaskans can join her in taking pride at her amazing two-month run on the national stage - and then it's time for her to settle in and do the business Alaskans elected her to do.
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