Driving home at night from her Capitol office, the leader of Alaska’s House Democrats often passes the governor’s white-columned mansion and wonders why more lights aren’t on.
Rep. Beth Kerttula assumes Gov. Sarah Palin is out of town, though Palin’s staffers say so far their boss has been there for most of the legislative session that began Jan. 20.
It’s a small matter, but it’s part of the buzz around the Capitol among lawmakers who are seeing less of their governor than in years past and wondering what it means in the wake of a Republican vice presidential run that brought Palin global fame and notoriety.
They’re accustomed to spotting her striding past, using two BlackBerries, stopping to chat in the hallway or inviting reporters into her office while she prepares for a speech.
Palin insists her focus is still on Alaska.
"I swore to steadfastly and doggedly guard the interests of this great state like a grizzly with cubs," she said in her State of the State address two days after the session began. "We’ve got to fight for each other, not against, and not let external sensationalized distractions draw us off course."
Some say she appears more tense than the vice presidential candidate who delivered sly jokes and incendiary speeches to packed rallies across the Lower 48.
"Not so sparky," said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, who wonders if the distractions of her newfound celebrity will keep Palin from devoting her full attention to Alaska’s looming budget shortfall.
Others grumble that she didn’t seem to reach out to the nearly 60 lawmakers assembled before her.
"I think her speech was not directed to us but right over our heads to a national audience," said Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, who remembers a much different Palin from just six months ago.
"There were days when she walked around the building with (her daughter) Piper, handing out bagels. I think those days are gone," he added.
Speculation that Palin is positioning herself for a presidential run in 2012 was fueled by news that she formed a political action committee.
"The half-life of political celebrity is really quite short, so she has to make a move," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Some pundits say Palin should go after U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s seat in 2010, but Sabato doubts Palin would win that contest.
He said she would do better by running for re-election and launching a White House bid during a second term as governor. She’ll have to prove that she’s engaged and energized over Alaska issues, though.
"If she gives any indication that she’s bored, she will literally get herself in trouble with what would otherwise be a slam dunk re-election," Sabato said.
Some Alaska lawmakers say Palin already has proved she’s engaged.
"So far, I’ve seen the governor deliver her energy package, she delivered her budget on time and she met with the majority caucus," said Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole. "I’ve not seen or heard anyone come up with anything the executive is supposed to be doing that she has not done. It appears to me she’s back on the job full-time."
Palin’s spokesman says her press office continues to receive hundreds of media requests for interviews, most of which she turns down. She has yet to hold a press conference at the Capitol this year.
However, just a few days ago, she walked out of the mansion after meeting with majority lawmakers and took reporters’ questions. She greeted the small group with a cheerful, "Hi guys," then she addressed the issue of her priorities.
"I’m sure legislators know I am the governor of Alaska, and this is first and foremost on my mind and my agenda. Any travel or meeting or participation outside of Alaska will only be if it’s good for Alaska," she said.
Juneau Democrat Kim Elton, a member of the Senate’s ruling coalition of Republicans and Democrats, predicts Palin will be tested this session.
"Is she going to have a legislative agenda that speaks to a national base, or is she going to have a legislative base that speaks to Alaska’s future?" he asked. "I’m not sure it’s easy to answer at this time, but I can assure you people will be watching very closely."
House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said he wants the governor to keep the lines of communications open. Then he won’t be worried that travel and political organizing will detract from her state job.
"What the governor does is of her own concern as long as she’s here to address the Legislature during the session and as long as her administration is engaged," Chenault said. "If it doesn’t interfere with running the state government, I’m fine with it."