MILWAUKEE – The more Sarah Palin talked, the more frequently Republicans seated at long banquet tables in Serb Hall checked their phones. There were eye rolls, titters and some laughter – though not the good kind.
Palin bombed Friday night. Four days before the pivotal Wisconsin primary, she was a surrogate for Donald J. Trump at the annual fish-fry fundraiser for the Milwaukee GOP, attended by 750 Republicans.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who polls suggest could crush Trump on Tuesday, was there, as was Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Both were well-received, especially Cruz, with his Constitution-thumping sermon and a joke that it was "not fair to train wrecks" to compare Trump to one.
But Palin didn't draw her first applause until 15 minutes into her stream-of-consciousness talk, with a plea for all the candidates to support Jerry Kramer, who was an offensive lineman on the great Green Bay Packers teams of the 1960s, for induction into pro football's hall of fame.
Her performance was a reminder of how hard and far Palin has fallen since she was John McCain's running mate in 2008, and then a tea party hero. She held right-wing audiences spellbound back in the day.
On Friday, Palin began her speech with a Packers pander. "It's always so good to be in Wisconsin, getting off the airplane today as I'm walking through the airport and seeing all the green and gold and green and gold 'til I'm dead and cold—paraphernalia everywhere—it's Packers," Palin said.
"What the heck are you thinking candidates?" Palin asked at another point. "What are you thinking when you go ahead and you're actually asking for more immigrants, even illegal immigrants, welcoming them in, even inducing and seducing them with gift baskets. Come on over the border and there's a gift basket with teddy bears and soccer balls. What are you thinking? It's just inviting more. Yeah. Candidates they can say anything they want to about immigration, amnesty."
It was not clear what she was talking about, though there was a surge of children crossing the border with Mexico illegally two years ago, some fleeing oppression in South America. It may have been a reference to a Trump criticism of Cruz – who now also wants to build a wall and crack down on illegals, but once signaled a willingness to work on a Senate bill that proposed a pathway to legal status for many in the country without documentation.
Later, Palin attacked another unnamed candidate for supporting job-killing free trade. Cruz? Kasich?
"What candidate helped pass Obama's trade deal? TPP. And actually removed the hurdles for fast tracking. That's TPA. And actually purposely opened the door for China and Russia to come on in and join TPP with zero congressional consult. Who opposed the crackdown on currency cheating? Who kind of freaks out now about putting any tariffs on Chinese trinkets and goods? You have to ask yourself who is this?"
(The Ohio governor could not vote on fast-track authority for President Obama's administration to negotiate TPP, so perhaps Palin meant Cruz. The Texan had supported that authority, but voted against it.)
"Only Trump talks rationally about national security," Palin said. Many in the crowd giggled.
As she was getting into a big black sport-utility vehicle, NBC News asked Palin if she got a good reception. "Well I think so – I didn't get booed, you know."