The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's abrupt and unscripted holiday resignation is an odd way to launch a potential presidential bid and certainly no help for a party battered by scandal and fighting for relevancy.

Yet from a folksy figure who catapulted from obscure governor to conservative darling, it's merely the latest move in a political drama that has left GOP 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.

"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. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the governor's explanations for many subjects never fully passed muster, but the stretched-thin campaign was forced to accept them during the final march toward November.

While the 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.

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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 to 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's going to try to wrap herself in the cloak of change that helped Barack Obama win the White House.

Not a bad platform amid a Republican Party without a clear leader.

The former basketball player 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.

It's not obvious to some 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.

Despite the announcement, Palin enjoys an ability to connect with voters. 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."