Sarah Palin turned in an impressive performance in an 11-minute appearance on the Today show with Matt Lauer this morning. She deftly handled both politics and economics when it came to the new natural-gas pipeline accord Palin reached, parrying tough but fair questions from Lauer. She also rose to the occasion when Lauer inevitably asked her about David Letterman (via The Right Scoop):

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This interview shows both the potential and the peril of Sarah Palin. She has improved considerably in handling the national media. On both economics and politics, Lauer couldn’t dent her (and just to emphasize, Lauer was treating her fairly), and had the Letterman controversy not existed, that aspect of her performance would have been the headline here. Instead, the three minutes or so in the middle of this 11-minute interview that has nothing to do with governing or policy will be all that the public will remember or want to see.

That could be the overall aim of Palin’s opponents. If David Letterman has to eat some crow every few months for his personal attacks on Palin, does that really matter to him? He has a contract with CBS for the next three years, at which point he’d probably retire anyway. Letterman and his ilk can continue to make all of the coverage about Palin revolve around her daughters, forcing her to respond and to look less serious as a politician, in a way that the media would never do to a man or to a liberal – as Palin said, no one did it to Obama, nor should they.

If enough of them do it, the downside for her attackers will be small, and the upside will be to kneecap Palin before she can threaten Democrats in a future election.

Update: Just to make clear, I’m not suggesting at all that Republicans distance themselves from Palin. At some point, we will need to let the Letterman-like provocations go and have her focus on national politics, where she has clearly improved. Promoting Palin as a victim (although entirely justified) won’t make her a compelling force in politics.