WASHINGTON — If Sarah Palin is stepping down as governor because she has national political ambitions — and she did not say she intends to run for president — her move did nothing to shake what GOP pollster Whit Ayers called "the 'lightweight' monkey on her back."
"If you're a serious politician and you're seriously interested in higher office, the best thing you can do is as good a job as possible in the current office," Ayers said. "I suppose it frees her from the responsibility of a full-time job. It does nothing to enhance the image she has that she's not material for the president of the United States."
Nearly rubbing their hands in glee, Democrats said that it "continues a pattern of bizarre behavior."
"Either Sarah Palin is leaving the people of Alaska high and dry to pursue her long-shot national political ambitions, or she simply can't handle the job now that her popularity has dimmed and oil revenues are down," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan.
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For elected officials with lengthy records of service, such as former Sen. Bob Dole, devoting their full attention to their presidential bid can be a smart move, said Stuart Roy, a political consultant who has worked for Republican congressional leaders. That argument just doesn't work for Palin, Roy said, adding that he admired Sen. John McCain's decision to pick her as his running mate last year.
"Maybe there is a personal reason of some sort," Roy said. "But barring that, if it's a political move geared at 2012, it's one of the most politically tone-deaf moves in years. Two and a half years as governor doesn't mean you shouldn't be president; look at Barack Obama. But it doesn't set you up for anything, either."
Palin's staunchest supporters in the anti-abortion movement, however, said they were pleased and appreciate continuing to have a high-profile role model who opposes abortion. They firmly believe that whatever she does next will have an "equal and profound impact," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, who co-founded the Team Sarah social networking Web site popular with Palin supporters who oppose abortion.
"Sarah Palin has always been an intensely independent woman -- always true to her faith, her family and call to public service," Dannenfelser said.
And maybe Palin doesn't want to run for president, said Fred Malek, a prominent Republican fundraiser who got to know Palin during the presidential campaign and has been advising her since then.
It was obvious she was dissatisfied with her role as governor, Malek said, although he was not aware she planned to step down and did not suggest she do so.
"I did have the impression she was not happy in the role in she was in," Malek said. "We see her through a political prism, but I think we sometimes forget she's a wife and mother of five kids and has responsibilities that are very dear to her."
No matter what path Palin chooses, Malek said, she has plenty of options, including serving as a powerful fundraiser for other governors and like-minded Republican candidates she believes in. A run at the presidency may not be in her future, he said.
"I take her at her word," he said. "I don't think she's made any plans in that regard."
But Malek noted Palin's star power and the way she can electrify some Republican crowds nationally.
He recently escorted Palin and her husband to the Senate-House dinner, an annual Republican fundraiser in Washington, D.C., for congressional candidates. Despite the controversy over her appearance at the event -- she had been asked to speak at the dinner but was replaced with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich after a mix-up over whether she would attend -- Palin was the star attraction, Malek said.
"Our table was mobbed," he said. "I felt like a celebrity."
William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, told Fox News that Palin's resignation now, three years before the next presidential election, "is real unconventional."
"It's a huge gamble -- but some of her gambles have paid off in the past," he said.