"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."
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."
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."