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The Palins Get Real

updated 11/22/2010 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/22/2010 01:00AM

Standing at her kitchen counter, Sarah Palin is nibbling on leftover reindeer chili. It's her first break in a chaotic day: Pediatrician, talk radio, speechwriting, a search for daughter Willow's Ugg boots and a photo shoot. "Oh," she says, licking her fingers and sliding off a gold band to show a visitor, "this is the ring I was telling you about." She was Sarah Heath when Todd Palin, both only 18, presented her with small hoop earrings made from Alaskan gold nuggets. "This was 1982, when my girlfriends were getting Van Halen albums, and I got my earrings in a little Eskimo basket," says Palin. She recently had one hoop made into this ring. "I look back and think, 'That's so beautiful. That's so Todd.'" Also so Todd: He winces as a photo assistant's metal clamp drops onto the new hardwood flooring he's just mopped to a shine.

Together nearly 30 years, married for 22, the former VP candidate and the frontiersman, both now 46, have an untraditional relationship, with Todd's role-and Todd himself-a mystery until now. Sarah's father, Chuck Heath, recalls the first he heard of Todd Palin. "Senior year he was such a stud, all the girls were chasing him," he says with a chuckle. "Sarah, with her competitive nature, won him over." Could she have known that years later they would head a mini-empire, together keeping Sarah Palin-who last year abruptly quit the Alaska governorship in a move she calls "freeing"-a giant on the political landscape?

She may be the talking head on FOX News, but laconic Todd is manning the camera, a crew of literally one in their Wasilla home studio. She drops Twitter-bombs into the discourse, while he Googles the latest news to brief her before she goes on air. And when Palin is traveling, Todd keeps it going at home, prepping baby food, attending school basketball games or overseeing home repairs. In short, says Palin, "he's my everything."

Now, following a spate of Republican victories, a number for candidates for whom Palin campaigned, these parents of five (and grandparents of one) are trying on new roles: costars. For eight weeks starting Nov. 14, America can tune right into the Palin living room on Sarah Palm's Alaska, airing on TLC, the TV home of the feuding Gosselins and the polygamist Sister Wives. Over the course of two hectic days in October, to promote the show and Palin's next book, America by Heart (see box, p. 60), the couple sat for a rare interview in their lakeside home.

They describe the show as being about Alaska's natural beauty and hard-working people. But it also gives a glimpse of Palin family life, ca. 2010. Todd, who in 2009 retired from 20 years of an oil-field job that used to take him away for six months at a time, is now home full-time. So, too, is Palin, as she is no longer (in her words) "shackled in Juneau by those hellbent on seeing my political and personal destruction." The older kids, Track, 21, and Bristol, 20, make appearances, while Piper, 9, emerges as a scrappy star, roaring back at a bear hunting near their boat. Trig, 2, who has Down syndrome, is a smiling presence, as is Bristol's son Tripp, 23 months. Willow is seen not only gutting fish for her 16th birthday, but also having a boy (whom Mom gently scolds) sneak upstairs to her room.

Why would the woman who coined the term "Mama Grizzlies" put her kids in a reality show? Palin says she hopes it will "help correct some untruths out there." For instance, Republican kingmaker Karl Rove recently said Palin's reality-TV turn would make her appear less then presidential, but she counters, 'I'd like Karl Rove to come up to Alaska and see me being in a man's world." Todd admits he was concerned about having the family filmed but adds, "That's why Sarah gets to take part in the editing." (The show's producer, Survivor creator Mark Burnett, says she has not asked to have anything deleted.)

Some may see the series as an eight-week campaign ad for a 2012 presidential run, a seeming inevitability the Palins dance around. "If there's an opportunity for me to help America get back on track, I will do that," says Palin. Adds Todd: "It's up to her." As for the kids? She says, "They all would say, 'Sure, Mom! Let's do it.' Piper would be flying Air Force One!"

But Todd isn't counting on the show to boost his wife's popularity. "People who don't care for us will always not care for us," he says. "It wasn't a priority to do a show to convince people to like us." Says Palin: "He knows what battles to pick."

Watching the couple interact, it becomes clear that Todd is the real protective grizzly, sparking some in the press to charge the Palins with being insular and paranoid. Every scheduling decision goes through him, and he backtracks the candidate research done by her political action committee before endorsements are decided. "If he hears that somebody talked to a reporter," says Palin, "he'll call that person and say, 'Dude, you've never even met my wife. Who do you think you are?"' As the yang to her yin, he also helps her laugh off some of the attacks in the press. There was a tabloid report that claimed the couple had reached a $20 million divorce settlement. "I call Todd on the cell phone [from the grocery checkout] and I say, 'Todd, you won't believe this cover!' And he says, Twenty million? Write me a check,'" Palin recalls. "But he's good about laughing some of that stuff off."

He's less good at revealing even the most innocuous of information. What do they do for date night? Todd searches for answers: They watch the news together and sometimes Deadliest Catch and Dirty Jobs. In June they scored rare alone time at the end of a family RV trip when they put the kids on a plane and drove the final 2,400 miles from Washington State to Wasilla. "I drive," Todd says. "She's busy on her BlackBerry. I'll fuel up, take a nap. And she'll go jogging. Sometimes twice a day." His idea of a great splurge for his wife of 22 years? Running socks. Surprisingly, he admits he's been inspired by Bristol to think about ballroom dancing with his wife. "That would be great therapy," he says. "From what I understand talking to other couples, if s fun."

Despite all appearances of a comfortable and cemented partnership, rumors of discord persist, fueled by Bristol's estranged former fiance Levi Johnston. Their darkest days, Palin says, were when Johnston was on the attack. "It seemed like the lies would never let up. Some days I would say, 'Okay, Lord, where is the light at the end of the tunnel?'"

Prayer got them through, she says, and around the house-from rosaries dangling on lamps to a straw crucifix beside the sink-are totems to a faith she says she exercises personally, not through organized religion. "I'm not a member of any church. I never have been my entire life. I'm just a Christian."

She says she was raised on the "strict tithe principle"-giving 10 percent of what she has to charity-and now, "we just have more opportunity to do that today." When asked specifically which charities she supports, she demurs: "Whomever Todd and I believe the most worthy cause is," adding that an important part of tithing is "you don't advertise it." Asked about reports that she'd made $12 million in her first nine months out of office, Palin says, "We haven't made that much, even today." Does she care to correct the record? "No. Because that's part of my freedom, not having to." (Should she run again, she will give up that freedom.)

With the money pouring in from her bestselling book Going Rogue: An American Life, her contract with FOX News and her speeches, their first big financial move, she says, was to set up college funds. Though her two college-age children are not currently enrolled, and Palin herself has griped about the "academic elite," she says that education "is very important. My desire is for all the kids to graduate."

As for her own future, Palin recognizes that the clock is ticking and she must seize her moment. "When you're granted influence, you don't squander it," she says. "I realize that people can stop listening to me at any time. As long as my kids don't stop, I'm fine with it."

Sometimes, too, she listens to them. Palin says she had an "aha!" moment of clarity when Bristol decided to appear on Dancing with the Stars. "She said, 'Mom, no matter what I do, I'm going to be criticized, so I might as well go dance.'" This seems to be Palin's new philosophy too. And her husband, naturally, supports that. In the end, says Todd, "she's the one out there performing."

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