updated 03/30/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 03/30/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Gov. Sarah Palin bustles into a Juneau supermarket on the morning of March 14, her three youngest kids in tow. A week earlier the city's Girl Scout Troop 32 was robbed of its cookie-sale proceeds. Now Palin has turned up to show her support. "Come buy cookies!" she beckons to shoppers. (It pays off: The troop moves $4,000 in Thin Mints, Palin's favorite, and other treats.) The governor, sporting a purple down vest and jeans, is in good spirits. Has she lost weight? a reporter asks. Yes, since delivering Trig last April, Palin says. "Thanks for noticing!" The scouts are mesmerized as Palin introduces the 2-month-old baby held by daughter Piper, 8. "This is my grandbaby Tripp," she says. Then the grandmother who still has a baby of her own in diapers adds, "It's kind of surreal."
And the baby's mom, Bristol? Earlier that week the 18-year-old high school senior made headlines when she and Levi Johnston, 18, broke up—rather than getting married, as Palin had said was the plan while campaigning for the Vice Presidency last summer and fall. Palin explains that her daughter is over at the capitol building "taking my place" at a miniature golf tournament and fund-raiser. "Bristol is doing great, just great!" the Alaska governor says.
If she was reassuring herself with that declaration, Palin, 45, showed no sign of it behind her constant smile and famous can-do attitude. Even before the split, in February Bristol—whose out-of-wedlock pregnancy became national news just after Sen. John McCain tapped her mother as his running mate last August—surprised her mom by giving an interview to Fox News's Greta Van Susteren, in which she acknowledged that teen parenthood is "exhausting." She also stated that premarital abstinence "is not realistic at all."
Now Bristol's breakup has refocused attention on Alaska's uncommon first family as it rallies to support the teenage mom. "Like all people in public life, your children are precious to you and you never want to see them subject to scrutiny," says Pam Pryor, spokeswoman for Palin's political action committee, SarahPAC. "There is a protection there." The governor's camp moved quickly to counter rumors that the Palins were less than happy about their almost in-laws: Levi, who has struggled to find a path after leaving high school, and his mom, Sherry, who is facing a drug possession trial in May. A tabloid report had Levi's sister Mercede, 17, accusing Bristol of calling her family "white trash." Palin's office responded with a denial denouncing Mercede's words as devastating.
Add to this the day-to-day Palin family stresses: a mom who works three months of the year in Juneau, 600 miles from their Wasilla home; a dad, Todd, 44, whose snow-machine events take him away for days at a time; the needs of a tween, a gradeschooler, and an 11-month-old son with Down syndrome; another son, Track, 19, serving in Iraq. Any parent might be reeling in similar circumstances. But, according to some, Palin remains remarkably steady. "In the legislature I've seen her going up and down the stairs with Trig and a blanket over her shoulder," says GOP state representative John Coghill. "I don't see her being stretched thin by family issues."
The governor understands that her family saga is of such interest because "so many see her family and go, 'Yeah, I get that.' There's an identification," as SarahPAC's Pryor puts it. But she is trying to remain above the fray. "Governor Palin is so focused on Alaska and, truly, nothing else," says Pryor.
Some locals agree that they are generally less interested in the Palin family doings than are those outside the state. "People may want to read about Bristol and Levi, but does that help solve any problems confronting Alaskans? No," says onetime Palin staffer Larry Persily. "Palin is like Evita Peron. She is very popular with the masses."
On the same day the governor was posing with Girl Scouts, Levi Johnston appeared at an Anchorage high school, where he was serving as an assistant coach at a Special Olympics floor hockey game. There Levi told PEOPLE that the breakup "was mutual," then declined further comment. The day before, Levi was surprised by a reporter for ABC's Good Morning America. Stopped while in his truck, which flaunts ultrasound photos of his son on the visor, Levi sounded conciliatory. "It's just us not, me not being mature enough," he said. "It could be better—better for us to separate for a while." Does he see his son? "Yes, whenever I want to." Any pressure from the Palin family? "No, not at all."
Bristol, meanwhile, is mostly keeping quiet in Wasilla, where she takes correspondence classes, attends Wasilla High and, says a friend of Levi's, "is thinking of going to UAA next year," referring to the University of Alaska Anchorage, possibly to study nursing. According to Pryor, "college is next for her, and she definitely wants to be an advocate for teens waiting to have babies." In her little free time, she works as a barista and a teaching aide. "Bristol is a tough kid, and she's going to be okay," says Mark Okeson, assistant principal at Wasilla High. "She seems to be doing real good, glad to be back." Adds Ty Bunnis, a retired teacher: "She's dealing with things publicly that most kids deal with privately. But they will pick up the pieces and go on—you can't grow up in Alaska and not be resilient."
People who know Bristol—and all the Palin kids—say they are nothing if not hardy. "My sense is this is a mother who has empowered her daughters," says a McCain campaign insider who met the family last year. "They were very grounded and respectful, very close to Mom and Dad. They had a strong sense of self-worth, and were comfortable in the limelight." And when Bristol spoke to Greta Van Susteren about the challenges of teen parenthood a month earlier, she "was eager to talk," says Van Susteren. "Bristol told me she loves her child very much and didn't want to take away from her kid. But having been through eight weeks of being a mother, she could see the wisdom of waiting to have a baby." Van Susteren also noted the amount of loving assistance Bristol gets at home. "There are sisters, cousins, grandmothers—the whole family helps. Todd is giving bottles and changing diapers."
During the three-month legislative session, Piper and Trig have been staying with Sarah in Juneau, and her mom, Sally Heath, flies in to help out. Todd (currently on leave from BP Exploration Alaska) has Bristol, plus Tripp and Willow, 14, in Wasilla. Even when Todd's on the road for snow-machine races (the weekend of March 14 he was in Valdez, manning the pit crew for Scott Davis, his Iron Dog partner) the arrangement allows the young mom some freedom—Bristol's been seen working out in town on her own. But when the family went out recently for an Italian meal at Evangelo's in Wasilla, Bristol sat at the kids' table, while Sarah and Todd had a booth to themselves.
Once a part of the mix, living in the Palins' five-bedroom Wasilla home, Levi has now moved out. In January he continued at-home school coursework after he quit his job as an electrical apprentice when it became known he lacked the requisite high school degree. His mom, Sherry, who faces a court trial in May on charges of selling OxyContin, rarely leaves home, so Levi brings Tripp to see her. "He loves him more than anything," says Mercede. Asked about her brother's breakup, Mercede says he and Bristol are "being mature about the situation because of the child." She adds, "I hope they don't get back together, just because I'm not fond of her."
Tom Whitstine Jr., a longtime co-worker of Todd's, believes the Palins have also opposed the Bristol-Levi romance, at least in the past. Last year her parents sent her to Anchorage to do her junior year of high school and live with Sarah's sister Heather Bruce. "Basically, they were trying to limit her contact with Levi, trying to be good parents," says Whitstine. "The method didn't work out. Now he's part of Tripp's family forever." Levi, for his part, told Good Morning America, "I'd like to get back together with her. I don't know what she's thinking. Whatever happens, happens."
As for Sarah Palin, her ambitions may include a White House run in 2012 (see box). Should that happen, scrutiny of her family will ratchet up again. But this latest round may prove to be, says Larry Persily, "inconsequential. I'd like to think Americans haven't sunk so low that they will vote for President of the United States based on whether his or her daughter broke up with a boyfriend."