WASHINGTON Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska and Republican "It" girl, can warm up the party base like a hot toddy in a duck blind. But further inside the party organization, the air is a little nippy.
What happened? In a word, bungling.
Everyone seems to have a Palin story of ignored calls, mishandled invitations or unanswered e-mail. Disorganized is how one might charitably describe the Palin operation.
"Basically, it's just rude," says one political operative, who is a Palin fan. "They've been running the great snub machine. That's the reason the boys in the Republican Party are unhappy with her."
That unhappiness has been building gradually, the past seven months, but was on full display this week as the party faithful gathered for a fundraising dinner at which Palin originally was invited to speak. She was later uninvited and Newt Gingrich took her place.
Watching the dinner-speaker spectacle develop, then unravel, then redevelop (Will she or won't she speak/attend?) felt like watching a middle-school romance in which a friend tells another friend that so-and-so has a crush on you-know-who, but don't tell anybody. A little silly, in other words. And embarrassing. The "tick-tock" of what happened is a Byzantine exercise in blame-shifting. Briefly, someone in Palin's "organization" accepted the original invitation in March, whereupon the dinner hosts issued a press release announcing that Palin would be the keynote speaker.
But then, no, Palin had not accepted. In fact, the press release was the first she'd heard of it. The official story suddenly became that SarahPAC had jumped the gun and Palin wasn't sure she could make the event. Enter Newt Gingrich. Then last week, so-and-so said she'd like to come, but you-know-who said, "We like someone else now."
There's more -- and stories vary -- but a common theme emerges: Seven months after the election, Palin still can't shoot straight. Unless something changes dramatically and soon, "Missed Opportunity" should be the title of her memoir.
By the time Palin returned to Alaska last fall, her popularity and fundraising ability were second only to Barack Obama's. Instantly, she was drowning in speaking requests. Boxes and boxes of invitations stacked up -- and went unprocessed.
Without any effort on her part, 75,000 to 80,000 fans around the country organized pro-Palin groups. Said a frustrated Palin promoter: "All she had to do for those 75,000 people was hold an electronic town hall, and she couldn't get around to it."
Of course, it's not that Palin has nothing else to do. But her problem is the same as it was a year ago. She isn't ready. For whatever reason -- skittishness, distrust or, quite possibly, executive weakness -- Palin has been unable to make the transition from Alaska politics to The Big Game Hunt of the national arena.
Plenty of experienced people have tried to help. Veteran operatives created SarahPAC to raise money for staff to at least open mail and return phone calls. It was a Kevin Costner field of dreams: Create the Web site -- and they came all right. The PAC raised $400,000 in its first month without so much as asking.
What happened next?
"We couldn't get them to decide on office space," says my source. "You couldn't get them to be professional."
Palin's fiercely independent streak is part of her charm but also may be her undoing. It's one thing to campaign on an anti-inside-the-Beltway platform. But to play in the big leagues, you need people who know what they're doing.
You don't flirt and say "yes," and then say "no," and then say "maybe," and then show up expecting a bouquet. The tease is a risky business. Palin did get to walk across the stage with Gingrich -- to appreciative applause and a few whistles -- but she wasn't allowed to talk. Something about upstaging Gingrich.
Palin also managed to get in a few words during an interview with Fox's Sean Hannity, which aired Monday night during the fundraising dinner. But anyone listening to both Gingrich and Palin would find pre-emption concerns ludicrous. Palin may be more fun to watch, but Gingrich dominates on the battlefield of ideas.
Whether Palin can rally her resources by 2012 remains in serious doubt, even among her fans. Said yet another Palin admirer: "The problem is, she has had months to get it together and they haven't. They could have had an excellent national team and state team working seamlessly."
But they didn't.