JUNEAU, Alaska - As surprised fans and critics of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin traded guesses behind her decision to resign more than a year before her term ends, the former vice presidential candidate offered few hints at her political future, except to say she'd gone fishing.
Palin has stayed out of the public eye since she made the announcement Friday, but said in a Twitter update Sunday she was looking forward to joining her family as they commercially fish in Bristol Bay. But to many Alaskans, Palin has been off the job for awhile already, acting as a disengaged presence around the state Capitol since she returned from the presidential campaign trail last year.
"She had a surprising amount of disinterest in state government after November," said state Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. "This state has a lot of problems, and she showed a complete lack of interest in solving them."
In Alaska, Palin has become a polarizing figure and the focus of multiple ethics complaints filed against her with the state personnel board. She has taken a beating from Senate Democrats over many of her recent appointments, including an attorney general candidate who became the first Cabinet appointment ever rejected by the Alaska Legislature.
But with all the thorny issues enveloping her in Alaska, Palin's quitting may be more about something simpler: cutting her losses.
Things weren't likely to improve, if she stayed in office. She faces a potential veto override of nearly $29 million in federal stimulus funds for energy efficiency programs, money she had rejected in fear that it could bind the state to federal building mandates.
"The drumbeat of adverse news coverage from Alaska would likely have continued and intensified had she remained governor," said Juneau economist and longtime Alaska political watcher Gregg Erickson. "It would have become an increasing liability to her national campaign."
A day after abruptly announcing she would soon give up her job as governor, Palin indicated on a social networking site that she would take on a larger, national role, citing a "higher calling" to unite the country along conservative lines. In the last few months, Palin had laid the groundwork for a possible presidential run, establishing a political action committee.
Erickson said that while Palin has received an adulatory reception from social conservatives in the Lower 48 states, in Alaska she's become a lightning rod for criticism and controversy.
It's easier to govern in Alaska when oil prices are high, but they are down from last year's historic highs and the budget is much tighter. And this year, Palin's signature project, getting a natural gas pipeline, moves into a critical phase: whether North Slope leaseholders will commit to shipping gas in the pipeline, which is still at least a decade away.
Palin has said stepping down as governor was about doing the right thing for Alaska - not wanting to be a lame duck governor if she knew she wasn't running for re-election in 2010. She also has hinted that her decision was a strategic move aimed at gearing up for a run for president.
But many political observers in Alaska say it was obvious her heart wasn't in the job.
Palin no longer delivered bagels to lawmakers. She limited her access to the media, and when she did hold news conferences, and she relied on notes and her commissioners for backup. One legislator quipped after her state of the state address in January that the only eye contact she made in the legislative chamber was with the television camera.
State Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, says it's an unfair rap on Palin, one that was used by critics against her two predecessors.
"The detractors will always use that as a criticism because it's hard to evaluate. It's not surprising it's being used against the governor," he said. "It's an easy criticism to level, because you're never asked, 'Where's the proof?'"
Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, who will be sworn into office July 26, told Fox News Sunday that Palin had spoken to him about "the concern she had for the cost of all the ethics investigations and the like, the way that that weighed on her with respect to her inability to just move forward Alaska's agenda on behalf of Alaskans in the current context of the environment."
Erickson, the Juneau political watcher, said the governor's resignation makes sense.
"Politically, I see it as a smart move. With the complete breakdown of her alliance with Democrats that marked her first two years as governor, she has no ability to move her policies forward in legislation. Indeed, her Alaska agenda, the gas pipeline in particular, is likely to fare much better with her out of the picture," Erickson said.
Palin has also faced growing criticism within the Republican party.