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Zito: Sarah Palin dishes on her run for Congress, Trump and divorce

Sarah Palin is standing on the back deck of her father's home in Wasilla, Alaska, spending the day like she usually does: getting her youngest child, Trig, ready for school while checking in with her 84-year-old dad as he adjusts to life without her mom, who passed away suddenly last year.

While Trig is at school, Palin said, she works on her campaign for Congress. The mother of five is running for Alaska's lone House seat, which became vacant when longtime Rep. Don Young died in March.

Now 58, not much about Palin has changed since she was tapped as John McCain's vice-presidential running mate on the 2008 Republican ticket.

She is also still a target for the media, which remain doubtful about her political prospects. Earlier this month, Politico published a story about her congressional bid, titled: "I Just Think Sarah These Days is Not a Person to Be Taken Seriously." NPR declared, "Sarah Palin is attempting a comeback in Alaska, but her star has dimmed at home," while The Washington Post blared, "Sarah Palin is running for Congress. Many Alaskans are skeptical of her."

But Palin just shrugs. "The media forgets that I was a mayor, a city council member and chair of the oil and gas commission that oversaw the supply of a lot of our natural resources to the rest of the United States," she said of her credentials.

"Or maybe they forget perhaps that I was a governor?" she added of the position she won when she unseated Gov. Frank Murkowski — a prominent leader of Alaska's establishment Republicans and the father of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, — in the 2006 Republican primary.

She declared her run for Congress on April 1 — just weeks after visiting New York City to pursue a defamation suit against the New York Times.

"When I announced, I said, 'Alaskans, if you hire me, I would love to work for you. I will go to Washington, D.C., and I'll represent you,' not really considering all the politics involved because as the days go on, you realize, 'Oh my gosh. OK, here comes the political machine,'" she said of the reactions to her announcement.

Since her resignation as governor in 2009, Palin has become a powerful force in the conservative populist movement — first dubbed the Tea Party during the 2010 midterm elections. She has since served as a Fox News contributor, hosted several outdoor lifestyle shows on the Sportsman Channel, and written the memoir "Going Rogue: An American Life," which spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 2009. She also endorsed former President Donald Trump's run in 2016 before the first caucus primary votes were even cast.

Meanwhile, Palin and her husband of more than 30 years, Todd, 57, quietly divorced in the spring of 2020. Palin said she found out in 2019 that her high school sweetheart — with whom she eloped in 1988 — wanted out of the marriage via an email from an attorney.

The pain and shock of the divorce is still evident. "It was the most earth-shattering, bizarre thing I could have ever imagined and it kind of remains so," she told me.

While they share custody of Trig, she said it's the only connection remaining between them. "He spends his time with his girlfriend whom he's had for some time now ... ," she says as her voice trails off, adding, "She lives down in the lower 48, so he spends a lot of time down in the lower 48."

Since the divorce, Palin said, she hadn't even thought about dating again until this winter, when she went to New York for the defamation case she filed against the New York Times for falsely claiming in a 2017 op-ed that her political rhetoric led to a mass shooting.

She called up a longtime friend, retired New York Rangers star Ron Duguay, because she figured he knew New York well enough to be her Gotham fixer — and a romance suddenly took off.

She lights up when she talks about Duguay, who played with the Rangers from 1977 to 1983, saying she finds the relationship "safe and comfortable."

"Ron is the first person that I've ever even talked to about a lot of this personal stuff. So, it's been helpful and refreshing to have Ron to talk to about not just politics, because he's got more common sense in his little finger than the collective in D.C., but just about life," she said.

Palin said her desire to run for office again piqued when she realized how much devotion to her home state she shared with the late Rep. Young. "He had such a passion for developing our natural resources, and then having those resources contribute to the safety and sovereignty of our nation," she said. "That was something we shared, along with our love and respect for the hard-working, unpretentious, independent Alaskans whom he represented."

Currently, there are at least 50 people running in the June special election. In a new system, the four who garner the most votes will move ahead to the special general election in August.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has already backed Palin's run for Congress, as has former President Donald Trump. Trump and Palin formed an early bond long before he ran for president in 2016, something she encourages him to do again.

"I think he should run again in 2024 because we need not just the media but politicians on both sides of the aisle held accountable. He's a master in holding people accountable," she said.

She said Trump called her the week before she announced her congressional bid and said, "Can you imagine if both of us are in there?" of the idea of them both winning and being in Washington together.

"I said that sure would shake up a lot of things," Palin said, laughing.

Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.