Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Monday, 7 March 2011

Will Sarah Palin run for president and can she win?

Watch the Newsnight film in full

By Jackie Long
BBC Newsnight

Sarah Palin, one of the best known and most controversial figures in American politics, told BBC Newsnight she was weighing up whether the US was ready for an "unconventional" presidential candidate like her.

"You run the race to win the race. That's for sure."

Speaking in Alaska, the state's former governor said if she did decide to run she would be fully committed.

But the cost together with whether voters were ready to make a win a reality, were issues she still needed to think about.

"Obama has already said he's going to spend a billion dollars (£615.4m) on this race, so money is certainly going to be a consideration," Sarah Palin told me.

"And just the idea of whether the American electorate is ready for someone a bit unconventional, who is willing to tell it as she sees it, not be beholden to special interest or such obsessive partisanship as to let a political machine get in the way of doing what's right for the voters."

Palin was catapulted from political obscurity to global celebrity almost overnight.

Barely 18 months into her job as state governor, she was asked to be Republican presidential candidate John McCain's running mate during the 2008 campaign.

Alaskans talking about Sarah Palin

Amid the raft of Republican men of a certain age on that campaign trail, Sarah Palin stood out.

Hugely energetic, she ferociously sold herself as a small town "hockey mom" who understood ordinary Americans.

A series of interviews in which she seemed to have little understanding of policy and scant knowledge of foreign affairs embarrassed the Republican establishment, but did little to dent her popularity among many voters.

When I asked her about the endless claims that she was not intellectually up to the job, Ms Palin seemed tense.

"Rumours like I didn't know Africa was a continent, that's still out there, that's a lie," she told me.

"Things like I censored books when I was a mayor up here in Alaska, that's a lie. It's not all you guys, but some of you are saying that Trig [her fifth child] is not mine - that's a sign of a screwed-up media.

"Would you be offended if someone said your child wasn't your child? It's offensive."

Sleeping with guns

But would such scrutiny, of not only her but also her family, make her think twice about entering the presidential race?

Sally and Chuck Heath invite Newsnight into their extraordinary family home

"Our family is pretty thick-skinned," she said.

"For the last 20 years in political office our family has put up with a lot of flak. We're still standing and we're doing well, so we're not worried too much about the pressure."

Critics said Palin's on-going battle with what she has labelled the "lame-stream media" was just an attempt to deflect criticism.

But it has not been harsh press coverage that concerned her elderly parents, Chuck and Sally Heath.

In the kitchen of their Wasilla home, among an extraordinary collection of animal skins, skulls and bones, the spoils of a lifetime spent hunting and fishing, they told me that their whole family has faced death threats.

"As a mother I do have concerns about her safety and that of the kids... she knows how I feel, that it's risky," Sally said.

Palin's father Chuck said a man recently had sent the family photocopies of a receipt for a gun he had bought, together with a photocopy of a one-way ticket to Alaska.

The family had laughed it off, but the man subsequently turned up in the state and was arrested by the FBI, Chuck said.

"We sleep with the guns," Palin's father admitted.

Newspaper reports in Alaska last month said a Pennsylvania man had visited Anchorage briefly - but without violating an order barring him from contacting the Palin family.

However, both the FBI and Anchorage Police Department on Monday said they had not had any contact with him.

'Political calculation'

Many have said it is Sarah Palin's self-confessed "tell it as it is" style that has brought her almost as many enemies as admirers. Earlier this year she became embroiled in a fierce row after a shooting near Tucson, Arizona in which six people were killed and more than a dozen wounded - including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head.

Susan and Chuck Heath

Commentators claimed that political rhetoric had contributed to the killings and Palin was specifically criticised for using an online graphic containing crosshair symbols to illustrate targeted Democratic districts in the recent US mid term elections.

Palin's response, in which she branded the claims "a blood libel", did nothing to calm the furore.

The woman who once enjoyed 90% approval ratings as governor of Alaska has now become one of the most polarising figures in American politics.

Yet both the critics and supporters of Palin that I met while in Alaska told me that she should never be underestimated.

The political calculation that she must now make is whether she can broaden her base enough to make winning a possibility.

Watch Jackie Long's film on Sarah Palin - including an interview with Ms Palin - on Newsnight on Monday 7 March 2011 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, and then afterwards on the Newsnight website and BBC iPlayer.

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