Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's abrupt and unscripted holiday resignation is an odd way to launch a potential presidential bid and no help for a party battered by scandal and fighting for relevancy.
From a folksy figure who catapulted from obscure governor to conservative darling and vice presidential nominee, it's merely the latest move in a political drama that has left Republican elders scratching their heads.
No one is sure why Palin took such an unusual path. All points suggest a strategy designed to maintain her political viability with an eye toward a 2012 presidential bid. Barring a personal surprise or scandal, little else makes sense.
Even in explaining her exit from the governor's office during the middle of her first term, former aides to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and current allies criticized Palin for what they said was a typically erratic and seemingly irrational act. McCain, who named Palin his running mate in 2008, issued a terse statement wishing her well.
"If this is her launching pad for 2012, it's a curious move," said John Weaver, a former senior strategist for McCain's presidential bids. "Policy is politics, and she has no real accomplishments as governor."
Some party officials, including some once close to Palin, wondered whether she departed in advance of a brewing controversy, an assertion her camp denied. During the presidential campaign, McCain officials fretted about six or seven areas of personal and professional concern, according to a former official who helped investigate Palin's background after her rocky rollout.
This official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said the governor's explanations for many subjects never won full acceptance from the campaign, but the stretched-thin McCain staff decided not to pick a fight with the vice presidential pick during the final march toward November.
While the straight-talking former small-town mayor didn't indicate what she would do after she leaves office this month, Palin's rambling exit statement offered clues about her political ambitions.
She says she wants to help Republicans win. That means she could raise money and earn favors for another campaign.
She says she wants to travel. That means she could find her way into high-value political centers such as Manchester, N.H., and Des Moines, Iowa.
She says the media are against her. That suggests she's casting herself as a victim again, a move right out of her campaign playbook.
She says she wants to better serve Alaska by stepping down as its governor. That means she could buck the system and try to wrap herself in the cloak of change that helped Barack Obama win the White House.
She says she wants to protect her family. That means she could run as a family values candidate.
Not a bad platform amid a Republican Party without a clear leader. Fighting among factions inside the GOP have pitted radio personality Rush Limbaugh against Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele; potential 2012 candidates against Washington; and out-of-power lawmakers against each other. All are struggling to cobble together unified opposition to the White House and a Congress that Democrats gained solid command of last week when Minnesota certified the election of Al Franken as that state's next senator.
Two potential GOP hopefuls saw their pathway close to the White House. Nevada Sen. John Ensign stepped down from the Republican leadership last month after admitting he had an affair with a woman on his campaign staff who was married to one of his Senate aides. Days later, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford said he carried on an affair with a woman in Argentina.
Palin tried to put herself above that mess. The former basketball star borrowed a sports metaphor to explain the decision.
"A good point guard drives through a full court press, protecting the ball, keeping her eye on the basket _ and she knows exactly when to pass the ball so that the team can win. And I'm doing that," Palin said during a sometimes breathless 17-minute statement at her lakefront home in Wasilla, Alaska.
It's not obvious that going back into the locker room is her best play.
"A good point guard wouldn't walk off the court midgame and expect a better contract two or three years down the road," said Weaver, who left McCain's side before Palin was chosen as his party's No. 2. "She's not going to be a help for Republicans. ... I think people would be playing with fire (to count on her to help the GOP)."
But politics is an unpredictable game.
Despite the misstep, Palin enjoys an ability to connect with voters that cannot be taught. She drew larger crowds than McCain and became an overnight celebrity whose star power has stayed. She would have tremendous sway in Iowa, where the nation's first caucuses are held, and in South Carolina, where social conservatives drive the nominating process.
"She has a national base of social conservatives she can count on for anything," said Rich Killion, an adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, another likely 2012 candidate. "But I can't get over how she convinces a general election audience how quitting on her constituents is a good thing."