The Manchester Inn and Conference Center in Middletown, OH, has seen better days. Known simply to locals as “the hotel,” it used to be a classy venue in a burgeoning steel town. A destination worthy of celebratory dinners and weekend getaways for couples.

 

JFK stayed at the Manchester when he ran for president in 1960.

 

And Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) spent the night there last summer. The presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) flew Palin into Middletown under the cover of darkness as they prepared to roll her out in nearby Dayton as the GOP vice presidential nominee.

 

I grew up just west of Middletown. McCain’s selection of a dark horse like Palin was one of the most compelling stories of the 2008 presidential campaign. So I was intrigued by the cloak-and-dagger machinations of smuggling Palin into Ohio so they could rock the political world the next day.

 

So when I returned to Ohio to visit my father last week, I spent two nights at the Manchester Inn.

 

I used to think the Manchester was pretty neat.

 

Growing up, I attended wedding receptions and rehearsal dinners there. As a college-age reporter in 1989, I covered the kickoff for the first Congressional campaign ever run by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH). I danced with Diane Edwards at the Manchester during my senior prom. And I attended a high school reunion there a few years ago.

 

The Manchester Inn was the place to go.

 

But Middletown is a hard-scrabble place these days. The steel mill struggles. Jobs are scarce. Meth is a growing problem. Prostitutes now roam the abandoned, downtown streets looking to turn tricks.

 

The condition of the Manchester mirrors the hard-luck economy that’s cast a pall over the rest of Middletown. 

 

At the Manchester today, faded wallpaper curls up just above the baseboards. The rooms are dim and rigged with furniture dating back to the early 1980s. The sink clogs up. The main restaurant is shuttered for renovations. Surly employees at the front desk bristle when you ask for an extra room key. Go looking down the hall in a broom closet for the ice machine and you’ll discover a hand-written note warning of “posion” in the sink.

 

At the time of Palin’s selection, the press quoted a McCain aide as saying they picked the Manchester because it was “unposh.”

 

The Manchester is about as unglamorous as it can get. And I can only imagine Palin’s reaction when she checked in. Especially after, as we learned later, the Republican National Committee coughed up $173,000 at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus to outfit the governor and her family.

 

The night before McCain introduced Palin onto the global political stage, the campaign flew Palin in to Middletown’s Hook Field, just two miles from the Manchester. Hook Field is a sleepy airport. Commercial flights don’t land there. There’s no tower. But the airport boasts a particularly long runway, able to accommodate most aircraft. Corporate jets have used the facility for years.

 

On the evening of August 28, 2008, political blogs crackled about the mysterious arrival of Lear Jet 35 with a woman who appeared to be “a real close match to Palin.” The airport manager on duty at the time was quoted in local media as saying the woman was whisked away to “an undisclosed location.”

 

That was the Manchester.

 

But the Palin family never checked in at the Manchester.

 

That’s because they stayed there incognito, registering as the “Upton Family.”

 

When I made my reservation at the Manchester, I requested the same room as the one Palin stayed in. I thought it would be fascinating to sit in that room and think about what churned through Palin’s mind as she was about to be unveiled the next day.

 

Not many people book rooms at the Manchester any more. But I was told that Palin’s room, number 508, was occupied with someone “in there long term.”

 

So I settled for a room one floor below.

 

When I arrived at the Manchester, a room near mine caught my eye. Affixed to the door was a nameplate reading “AK Suite.” For a moment, I wondered if that had something to do with Palin. After all, AK is the postal abbreviation for Alaska. Non-locals may have made that assumption. But growing up there, I knew that AK Steel is the major employer in Middletown.

 

So I ventured up to room 508 to see where Palin slept.

 

And that’s when I chuckled out loud. Much like the “AK Suite” one floor below, room 508 also bore a special nameplate.

 

It read “Presidential Suite.”

 

Sarah Palin is now at a critical junction in her political career. Many experts on the right and left panned her performance last fall. They described her as too green. Some staffers from the McCain camp relayed horror stories about the governor’s ego. The Republican House and Senate campaign committees just unceremoniously dumped Palin as the keynote speaker at their major fundraising dinner after her political action committee accepted the invitation and her gubernatorial staff waffled.

 

“She was a disaster,” confided one Republican source familiar with the invitation.

 

But still, Sarah Palin is a draw. As the GOP struggles to find its sea-legs, many conservatives view Palin as the future of the party. The web is sprinkled with dozens of websites courting Palin for a presidential run in 2012. Palin makes her first major foray out of Alaska since the election this week at a Right to Life banquet in Evansville, IN.

 

But Palin still puzzles some. The governor issued a statement last week blasting Levi Johnston, the father of her grandchild and former fiancé of her daughter, after he appeared on the Tyra Banks Show. And Palin suggested that Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) resign after the Justice Department torpedoed the conviction of the man Begich beat last November, former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK).

 

There is a vigorous, grassroots effort to draft Palin to challenge President Obama in 2012. Her backers continue to rip CBS’s Katie Couric for her interview with Palin. They monitor the New York Times for potential “hit pieces” on the governor. Palin partisans are organized and they are loyal.

 

But that’s just one wing of the Republican party. Many GOPers are done with Palin. And those Republicans hope that the Presidential Suite at a rundown hotel in a failing Ohio steel town is as close as she’ll ever get to the White House.

 

- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.