Indiana anti-abortion banquet marks Palin's national return

WASHINGTON — Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's taken flak from political foes at home, and national Republican leaders are miffed that she won't be at one of their fundraisers this spring.

Still, the former vice presidential contender is intent on visiting southern Indiana this week to attend what's billed as the country's largest annual banquet for anti-abortion activists.

Thursday's event doesn't carry quite the same weight for potential presidential candidates as, say, eating midway food at the Iowa State Fair or a sit-down with the Union-Leader newspaper editorial board in Manchester, N.H. But the Vanderburgh County Right to Life Banquet is a big one — with sold-out attendance of 2,180 and an additional 600 or 700 people in an overflow room at a civic center in Evansville, Ind.

"For her to go to a place like Indiana speaks volumes about who she is and where her heart is," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, who heads up the Susan B. Anthony List, which is supportive of female political candidates who oppose abortion. The organization also is affiliated with Team Sarah, a Facebook-like social networking Web site of about 70,000 Palin supporters nationwide.

"I think it's a good choice for her because it's a reflection of who she is: sort of out of the beltway," Dannenfelser said. "She's just being who she is. And being who she is annoys Washington — dramatically."

Palin's attendance at an anti-abortion event — her first major public event outside of Alaska since the presidential campaign — sends a laser-like message to the conservative potential voters who Palin must court if her political future includes a bid for the presidency in 2012.

Palin is playing it safe by attending an event where "dissenting voices are likely to be far and few between," said Neil Newhouse, a Republican strategist and pollster for Public Opinion Strategies in Alexandria, Va.

"But Palin's foray into the Midwest also sends a pretty clear signal to the GOP faithful that she intends to build on her conservative credentials rather than 'move to the middle,' " Newhouse said. "While we shouldn't read too much into a single event, it sure looks like she has her eyes set on GOP primary voters."

The Alaska governor will make a few remarks at the banquet, a fundraiser for the Vanderburgh County Right to Life Committee. She'll share the stage with the keynote speaker, Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. She'll also attend an event for an organization that supports families with children born with Down syndrome, such as her own infant son, Trig.

The Indiana banquet is Palin's first major political event since she and her running mate, Sen. John McCain, were defeated in November. Palin attended a meeting of Republican governors in Miami and a National Governors Association meeting in Philadelphia late last year, and she also came to Washington in late January for the exclusive Alfalfa Club dinner featuring President Barack Obama. But those events were notable primarily for Palin's effort to keep a low profile.

Even her visit to Indiana has a low-key feel. Local political leaders in Indiana offered to help Palin organize a fundraiser for SarahPAC, the political action committee she formed to help pay for out-of-Alaska travel not covered by the state of Alaska. But Plain turned the offer down, said Nicholas Hermann, chairman of the Vanderburgh County Republican Party. That wasn't lost on Hermann, or the banquet's organizers.

"I think the world of her, not only because of what she can offer our country and the pro-life cause, but what it says about how she wants to come here and be with people who believe in life," said Mary Ellen Van Dyke, executive director of Vanderburgh County Right to Life. "She walks the walk and talks the talks. She could, obviously, be doing other things, and she chose to do this."

The timing of Palin's trip to Indiana hasn't sat well in Alaska, where her political foes on both side of the aisle have grumbled about her leaving town in the final days of the state's legislative session. The chairwoman of the Alaska Democratic Party, Patti Higgins, complained Monday that Palin was "putting her national political ambitions ahead of the needs of Alaska."

Palin's chief of staff, Mike Nizich, countered that he had worked for seven of the state's governors and all had traveled during the legislative session. They didn't anticipate that "the governor's political opponents would want their hands held in the final hours of the session."

Palin has deliberately kept a low national profile during the legislative session, said Meg Stapleton, an Alaska-based spokeswoman for SarahPAC.

SarahPAC hasn't been actively raising money, except for a signle e-mail solcitation, said Pam Pryor, who helps run the committee from the East Coast, and the governor has turned down most invitations that have come her way, Stapleton said.

But Palin felt personally drawn to the Indiana event.

"Indiana was a generous invitation," Stapleton said. "Two things with which she identifies are special needs children and the right to life, and they had invited her a while ago. She kept it in the back of her mind and as time went by, she actually told me, 'I really want to go, I'm just going to spend less than a day in Indiana.'"


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