By Alex Leary
Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON — Sarah Palin — celebrity conservative, best-selling author, moose hunter — is adding kingmaker to her resume, getting involved in dozens of political races across the country and ramping up speculation about her future as a candidate.
Two years removed from her breakout as John McCain's running mate, Palin figured heavily Thursday in her home state of Alaska, where she backed a little-known candidate for U.S. Senate now on the cusp of a major upset.
In Florida earlier this week, Palin played a role in Pam Bondi's win in the three-way GOP primary for attorney general, offering a surprise endorsement and recording a call to voters.
"She has an electrifying effect on the Republican base," Bondi said Thursday as she prepared to write Palin a thank you e-mail.
So far, Palin has waded into more than 40 races in 30 states, from Iowa to New York to Wyoming and California. She is drawn to big-name midterm elections like McCain's primary battle in Arizona and down-ballot contests, often stunning the candidates.
"Ha, ha, ha," Bondi wrote in a text message when staff told her of the endorsement, announced Aug. 18 on Facebook. "They responded, 'No really.' "
There is no real pattern to whom Palin chooses to endorse and where, an unpredictable and disparate mix of establishment types and outsiders.
Of the endorsements that came before a primary, 13 candidates have won and 7 have lost. Critics have latched onto high-profile defeats, including Republican gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel in Georgia, as evidence of Palin's fading status.
Yet the mere attention paid to the win-loss column — the Washington Post has an interactive "Palin tracker" — confirms her status as one of the country's most recognizable, and polarizing, political figures.
This week has been big for Palin. She recorded wins in Florida (in addition to Bondi, she endorsed congressional candidate Allen West of Plantation) Arizona (McCain) and, potentially, Alaska.
Joe Miller, a lawyer backed by the tea party, retained a slight advantage Thursday over incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski with thousands of absentee ballots still to be counted. The story is complex — some Alaskans still resent how Murkowski was handed the seat eight years ago by her father, whom Palin went on to beat for governor — but Palin's role has not gone unnoticed by Miller or the news media.
"Sarah Palin reclaims her Midas touch," read the crawler on CNN.
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"She's clearly collected a lot of IOUs," said national Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "The real question is what she wants to do with them."
Jostling for the 2012 presidential election has already begun with Republicans Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee and others extending feelers. Endorsements are a safe way to circulate your name without seeming too obvious and all three potential candidates have been busy doling them out. But none gain notice like Palin's.
"Mrs. Palin is using what she has at the moment," said Janis Edwards, a University of Alabama communications professor who has written about Palin in the context of gender politics.
"What makes it especially interesting is the attention she's drawing to women candidates," Edwards said.
"Until now most of the attention on women in politics has derived from a more liberal outlook," Edwards said. "Sarah Palin is appropriating the liberal feminism to further conservative interests."
Palin's personal motivations are cloudy.
Last year, she quit her job as governor of Alaska to pursue an array of other interests, including work as a Fox News contributor and a TLC series called Sarah Palin's Alaska. She continues to travel the country on a speaking tour that garners big fees.
During a stop in Jacksonville on Thursday, Palin criticized President Barack Obama and Gov. Charlie Crist, who campaigned with her and McCain in 2008, for their stance on abortion. Slow ticket sales ($100 and $50) forced organizers to move the event, a fundraiser for a group that helps pregnant women get support, from a 2,900-seat theater to a 600-seat one.
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Palin has endured highs and lows in the past two years. She burst onto the scene in 2008 as a fresh-faced, charismatic conservative who often outshined McCain. By the end of the campaign, she had become a caricature, ridiculed as a lightweight on Saturday Night Live.
Defying critics and the news media — the "lamestream media," she calls it — Palin got a second wind through the tea party movement. Her endorsements cultivate the image of a leader.
"She's clearly trying to play a role within the Republican Party and this is certainly one way to be engaged," said GOP pollster David Winston.
"What she has not done yet," he added, "is define at a policy level who she wants to be and what direction she wants to go. That is central to her if she has any future ambition."
Kellyanne Conway, another prominent Republican pollster, knows what she would do.
"If I were Sarah Palin, I would not run for president," Conway said. "I'd have to give up too much power, too much money and too much fun."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.