Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, once considered a top candidate for 2012 GOP presidential nomination after sharing the ticket with Sen. John McCain last year, leaves the governor's office this weekend with an increasingly negative image and concerns over the depth of her intellect that threaten any future political candidacy.
Just four in 10 voters now hold a favorable view of Palin overall -- a new low, down from 58 percent last year, an ABC News/Washington Post poll has found. A majority of 53 percent now view her unfavorably, a perilous figure for any public office seeker.
Nevertheless, some political strategists still see a future for Palin in politics, should she choose to pursue one.
"I always thought Sarah Palin had very strong candidate skills, and I think if she wants to run for office there are clearly Republicans out there that like what they hear. She'll certainly have a receptive audience if she runs for office," said Republican strategist Terry Nelson, who has advised President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain in the past.
But the current poll numbers are not insignificant, says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
"What's driving it is the resignation and all the controversy," Sabato told ABC News. "Palin's become a grand soap opera that's playing out in places where a presidential candidate does not want to be."
Palin's Resignation a Head-Scratcher
Palin's bombshell July 3 announcement that she will quit as governor this Sunday spurred speculation about a grassroots presidential run in 2012.
As the GOP wunderkind from Wasilla, Alaska, wraps up her abortive single term as governor dishing out hot dogs with three days of farewell picnics in Wasilla, Anchorage and Fairbanks, political analysts are scratching their heads over just what Palin is up to, and whether leaving public office could possibly improve her future electoral fortunes.
"This is a major blow to any presidential aspiration she may have, whether she recognizes it or not, because it's deadly," Sabato said of Palin's surprise resignation. "Her Republican opponents -- and a Democrat, if she's a nominee -- can say she up and quit."
Nevertheless, supporters say Palin, who already has a lucrative book contract in hand, has plenty of options.
"Her future is whatever she wants it to be," Republican strategist Carl Forti told ABC News. "If that's TV entertainment or politics. But running for president takes more than charisma. It's a hard road she can't do alone. If she intends to run she needs to build a team and get better educated on the issues."
"She could be a commentator," Nelson said. "Other things I'll be looking for: What is the focus of her book? Does she get involved with some foundation? Does she try to do something that puts some thought leadership into some issues? Right now she's defined as a personality -- not a lot of people would ascribe issues to her other than personality."
Sarah Palin Faces More Negative Image
Palin's official explanation for her surprise July 3 statement that she would leave office with a year-and-a-half left in her first term is that she wants to spare Alaska the cost of multiple ethics complaints.
But she also invited Americans to join her in a little-explained campaign to pursue her conservative priorities of free enterprise, smaller government, increased drilling for oil and muscular national security. If that were to end in a presidential bid, the governor would have to overcome increasing skepticism.
"As she packs up the Alaska governor's mansion and pushes back against the latest ethics brouhaha, Sarah Palin's got other problems: A more negative public image than she held during the 2008 campaign -- and broader questions about her grasp of complex issues," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes.
The increasingly critical scrutiny follows grousing by former McCain aides that Palin focused little on major issues in the 2008 campaign, the disclosure shortly after she joined McCain's presidential run that her unmarried teenage daughter was pregnant, the tit-for-tat arguments in the press between her daughter and her now-estranged boyfriend, and Palin's surprising exodus from the job that elevated her national profile.
And then there are the ethics complaints that have reportedly run up $500 million in legal fees, which spawned a legal aid fund that led to yet another ethics complaint. In October, a legislative panel found said Palin had abused her powers as governor by trying to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from the state patrol.
Media reviews have also been largely unfavorable. In one particularly devastating analysis, Vanity Fair's Todd Purdum declared Palin the "sexiest and riskiest brand in the Republican Party." The article went to call her 2008 vice presidential run "disastrous" and her family a "rogues gallery" that makes "Billy Carter, Donald Nixon, and Roger Clinton seem like avatars of circumspection."
Reviews like that could actually help, some Republicans say.
"Palin can use the bias against the media in the conservative community in her favor," the GOP's Forti said. "She can claim she gets a bad rap in the media and that echoes. It's been a long time since the Republicans have had a plain-talking charismatic candidate like Palin. It's very easy to see why people like her. Her obstacle now is to take that charisma and prove that a three-quarters-term governor from Alaska is qualified to be president of the United States."
Republican Still View Sarah Palin Favorably
By leaving office, Palin steps down from a position that could subject her to continued public pillorying by Democrats. Just today in The Washington Post, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., assail Palin's energy policies in an op-ed titled "What Palin Got Wrong About Energy Policy."
"Maybe she's just tired of all the drama and simply wants to stop the madness surrounding her," Republican operative Mark McKinnon, who coached Palin during the campaign, recently wrote in the blog The Daily Beast.
One major deficit the former beauty queen, sports reporter and Wasilla mayor would have to overcome in any future electoral bid would be the perception of her leadership. Just 40 percent see her as a strong leader -- compared to 71 percent for President Obama -- and 54 percent do not see her as a strong leader.
But despite those troubles, Palin still fares well in perceptions by Republicans, 70 percent of whom view her positively, compared with 40 percent of independents and 20 percent of Democrats. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents voicing an early preference for the 2012 presidential nomination, 26 percent in the ABC News/Washington Post poll favor former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, 21 percent prefer former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and 19 percent back Palin.
The telephone poll, carried out July 15-18, 2009 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults, had a 3.5-point margin of error.
Amid all of the speculation and the negative turn in the public's perception of her, the real truth surrounding her final weekend as governor is that Palin herself is the only person who truly knows what's in store for her future.
"Maybe she wants to focus on her family. Maybe she may wants to make a lot of money giving speeches. Maybe she wants to host her own TV show. Maybe she wants to start a Barry Goldwater-like movement. And maybe she wants to run for President in 2012. Or, maybe she's got a boyfriend in Argentina," McKinnon quipped. "Only one thing is for sure when it comes to Palin: There is more to come. Probably much more."
ABC's Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.