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From prime time to Presidency?

Most politicians wait until after their careers in office are over before they start doing TV punditry and appearing in reality shows, but Sarah Palin is changing all that.

Ms Palin was an unknown and relatively inexperienced state governor until her surprise nomination as John McCain's running mate in the 2008 Presidential elections. But since hitting the limelight, she's proved exceedingly adept at staying there.

When Palin resigned as Governor of Alaska last year, most assumed it was the first step in her campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2012. And it seems she's determined to use the TV as her ticket to the White House.

In January of this year, the handsome and extremely telegenic politician joined the right-wing Fox News channel as a political analyst, and the regular slot has done her media profile no harm at all. Her association with the Tea Party movement and the publication of two books over the past year have further increased her TV visibility, and last month she debuted in her very own reality show.

In 'Sarah Palin's Alaska', an eight-part reality series currently being screened on the TLC channel, we see Palin and her family knocking around their spacious home in Wasilla and embarking on gruelling expeditions in the great outdoors. At various points Palin, her husband Todd and sundry children (they have five of them) set out in bush planes across the rugged and inhospitable terrain to fish for salmon in remote lakes and hike up forbidding mountains.

Viewers have got to see Palin shinning up icy slopes beside steep drops into inaccessible crevices, and squaring up to a grizzly bear that has designs on the family's fishing spot. Only a fool would back the bear.

In fairness, Palin does seem to have a genuine love of the Alaskan landscape, but some of her children don't. And at one point the former governor shows her unique way with the English language when she admits that her 20-year-old daughter Bristol is more interested in "socialisation" than scaling dangerous glaciers.

Her husband, meanwhile, mutters darkly about an author called Joe McGinniss who lived next door to the Palins for three months and is now writing a book about the experience.

Palin is not roaming the mountains of Alaska for the good of her health. During the 2008 elections she succeeded in portraying herself as a down-to-earth "hockey mom", and an antidote to the elitist ruling class. And in 'Sarah Palin's Alaska' she seeks to solidify in voters' minds an idea of her as a homely frontierswoman and down-home patriot.

Initially, it seemed to work. After an intense marketing campaign on the TLC channel, the first episode of the show attracted a very respectable five million viewers. However, by the second show the viewership had dropped some 40pc, suggesting that the American public may have figured out what Palin is up to. But the reality show is not the only weapon in her TV armoury.

During the 2008 election campaign, Palin's eldest daughter Bristol became a bit of a political liability when it was revealed that the then 18-year-old was pregnant. This was something of an embarrassment for her mother, who has deeply conservative views on such matters, but the cracks were papered over somewhat when Bristol became a campaigning advocate for sexual abstinence.

This year Bristol began to pull her weight in the Palin publicity machine when she joined the hugely popular 'Dancing with the Stars' show as a contestant. And as with most things concerning the Palins, her involvement soon became controversial.

A pleasant but shy and slightly mousey young woman, Bristol's celebrity is so entwined with her mother's that the show had a hard time finding a suitable description of her: in the end they settled for 'teen activist'. Once Bristol started dancing it became obvious that she was no Ginger Rogers, and most of the time she lumbered around the stage like a mildly distressed tree trunk.

For reasons that would be hotly disputed, however, Bristol became the Ann Widdecombe of the piece, being saved from eviction week after week in spite of her limitations on the dancefloor and the fact that she signally lacks her mother's effortless charisma.

Some viewers smelt a rat, and decided that 'Dancing with the Stars' had been covertly politicised. Fans of other, possibly more talented contestants complained that right-wing websites had organised email campaigns on her behalf and suspicions grew that she was being kept in the competition by the Bible Belt.

Her involvement in the show certainly outraged some. There were death threats, and suspicious packages were sent to the ABC Studios, including an envelope containing a white powder that turned out to be harmless. And in Vermont a 67-year-old man was so incensed by Bristol's continuing success that he blew his television apart with a shotgun.

Bristol Palin, however, does have one thing in common with her mother: she's a fighter. She made it all the way to the last three, possibly motivated by fear as she kept worrying to camera about hoping she wouldn't "disappoint my mother". And in advance of the show's finale, she said that "going out there and winning would mean a lot -- it would be like a big middle finger to all the people out there that hate my mom and hate me".

Bristol didn't win, but her mother certainly did. She was sitting in the 'Dancing with the Stars' audience on the night of November 23 smiling proudly to camera at every opportunity. Although Palin's every move is still pounced on by satirists such as Jon Stewart, she's now one of the most famous and instantly recognisable people in America. And there are even suggestions that Tiny Fey's famous 'Saturday Night Live' impersonations of her have only helped increase Palin's profile.

Two years before the next Presidential race, Sarah Palin is beginning to look like an unstoppable media machine.

Weekend Magazine