July 26, 2009 — -- Sarah Palin officially stepped down as Alaska's governor late Sunday, saying she thought she could more effectively serve the people of the state by leaving office.
She went out with a bang, delivering a fiery 15-minute long speech to a crowd of supporters in Fairbanks, Alaska, in which she lambasted the media and touted Alaska's history of energy independence.
Midway through her speech, it sounded as if Palin was back on the vice presidential campaign trail, stumping for fiscal conservatism, the development of natural energy resources, and moral conservatism.
Yet she gave no hint as to her future in politics, saying only she stepped down in order to spare Alaskans "politics as usual" from her governorship turning into a "lame duck session," with a year-and-a-half to go.
The decision to step down has bewildered even some of her most loyal supporters.
Analysts say she is now in uncharted political territory.
She is scheduled to appear at the Reagan Library for an event in August. But, what else? Will she seek higher office or cash in on speaking engagements and a TV deal?
If anyone truly knows, they're not saying -- including Palin's husband Todd, the so-called "first dude."
"It's been an awesome experience and she's very happy to serve the residents of Alaska and onto the next chapter of life," he told ABC News.
But again, the question everyone's asking: What next?
"I guess well just have to wait and see," he said.
Earlier, not even her father, Chuck Heath, seemed to know to know her plans.
"I'm sure she has something else in mind," Heath said. "[But] I don't know. I spent two days with her over the Pale River, and she'd be a good poker player -- she didn't lead on to what she wants to do."
Palin herself had little to say about her post-weekend plans.
"Come Monday, I'm going to be finding new avenues to keep working hard for Alaskans," she told ABC News.
Even as she served up hot dogs Saturday at an event in Anchorage in her last weekend as governor, a smiling Sarah Palin remained mum about what those "new avenues" might be -- unless you count her brief tweets on the social networking site Twitter.
Foreshadowing the freedom to speak her mind as a private citizen, she recently wrote, "ten days till less politically correct twitters fly from my fingertips."
She also wrote about listening to a country song called "Rollin," by the country duo Big & Rich, and quoted the lyrics, "ain't gonna shut my mouth -- I know there's got to be a few hundred million like me -- just trying to keep it free."
As she headed off Saturday evening to the final stop on her farewell tour -- Fairbanks, Alaska -- Palin tweeted again about what she'll be listening to in her camper: "RdTrip7 hrs wKid Rock/Martina McBride/Big&Rich/Grtchn Wilson/Billy Currngtn/Hank/Toby/VanP/Blk I P's/Greenwd/Straight/etc&USO artists=heaven"
Lost in all the smiles is the odd fact that she will leave office and step down early for no stated reason other than a vague notion of trying to save Alaskans the cost of her many legal battles over ethics complaints.
On stage Friday night, Palin said, "This being my last time to speak to the valley community as your governor, I do want to tell you sincerely that I love you, I appreciate you and your support, the support that you've shown my family. God bless you and God bless America."
Palin has easily embraced her weekend "picnic tour" of Alaska, which kicked off Friday in her hometown of Wasilla before moving on to Anchorage and ending today in Fairbanks before handing over power to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell.
"I'm very happy to get to be here in Wasilla," Palin told ABC News early Saturday. "I'm in my hometown and looking forward to spending more time in my hometown."
The Wasilla crowd was hopeful of greater things to come for their local Republican heroine.
"I think Sarah should be president," said town resident Becca Buyse. "I think she would do a much better job. She has the people's interest."
Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said that success is in the cards for the soon-to-be former governor.
"What's she heading to is a lot of money and continuing fame," he said. "So she's not giving up anything, she's gaining a great deal."
But an increasing number of people feel pessimistic about the self-proclaimed hockey mom: According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 40 percent of Americans hold a favorable opinion of her overall, down from a high of 58 percent. Fifty-four percent don't see her as a strong leader and 57 percent don't think she understands complex issues.
Her numbers shot up among Republicans, however: 70 percent view her positively.
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 Sen. John McCain in the past.
Still, the current poll numbers are not insignificant, Sabato said.
"What's driving it is the resignation and all the controversy," he 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 would quit as governor this Sunday, July 25, spurred speculation about a grassroots presidential run in 2012.
As the GOP wunderkind wraps up her abortive single term as governor, 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.