Why Palin is poised to trump her opponents
The US is fighting three wars – give or take Libya. Unemployment just ticked up to 9.1 per cent. In coming weeks, the nation faces a critical decision to raise the $14 trillion debt ceiling. So why is America’s political class still squawking over Sarah Palin?
Last week, the former Alaska governor threw the 2012 Republican primary race into chaos - not by announcing her candidacy, but simply renting a bus and hoiking it on vacation. She rode in a bikie parade. She made a cameo at the National Archives.
Like the garden gnome in Amelie, her cherubic face popped up in a reel of happy snaps from Gettysburg to the Liberty Bell to New York’s Ellis Island.
The media – not given so much as an advance wink – went berserk. Disoriented reporters fanned out ahead, blindly trying to predict which museum or Civil War battlefield she’d pull into next. Others – including a CNN truck – gave hair-raising chase on the Interstate, presumably hoping she’d expound her thoughts on the budget deficit in between filling her gas tank and buying daughter Piper an icy-pole.
In fact, not since Speed has a runaway bus had so much riding on it. If Keanu and Sandra ever dropped below 50 miles an hour, their fate was assured: Dennis Hopper would blow everything up. If Todd and Sarah decide in coming weeks to yank the wheel in the direction of Iowa, many predict a different kind of Armageddon: it means Palin is running for president.
There is still plenty of time. Later this month, a pro-Palin film touting her accomplishments as governor, The Undefeated, will premiere in Iowa. Its maker predicts it will drop like an “atomic bomb” in the Republican primary.
Then again, anything would. With eight months until the Iowa caucuses, the field to challenge Barack Obama is a snooze. Likely starters include Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman (former governors of Minnesota and Utah; both virtually unknown outside their home states); former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (gaffe-prone and yesterday’s man), Herman Cain (an African-American pizza executive), Rick Santorum (an arch-conservative ex-Pennsylvania senator), Michele Bachmann (a Congresswoman regarded as Palin-lite) and two libertarians, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson.
Only barely standing out from this insipid lot is Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who at least boasts name recognition and fundraising muscle from his 2008 presidential run. In a general election, Romney (and conceivably Pawlenty and Huntsman) would have some appeal to swinging voters and – especially if unemployment remains high – give Obama a race.
First though, each has to win over a conservative primary electorate not itching to extend bouquets over their past moderation. In Massachusetts, Romney signed a law making health insurance compulsory. But it’s become the Republican version of bubonic plague ever since Obama used a similar template nationwide.
Huntsman is probably destined to burn at the stake for his support of same-sex civil unions and acceptance of an Obama posting as ambassador to China. And Pawlenty’s heresy is his previous support for an emissions trading scheme. There’s also his Minnesota niceness – discordant at a time the Obama presidency has most Republicans boiling mad.
This creates a hole in the primary field for a conservative populist with genuine star power like Palin to rally the grassroots from the right. Jumping into the race, she’d likely follow the model she’s been road-testing: circumventing the press and moneyed Republican establishment to appeal to a coalition of Tea Party activists, talkback radio listeners, rural and religious voters.
The micro-candidates would crumple, causing party elders (panicked that Palin would get clobbered in a general election) to probably stampede to Romney. But a Romney-Palin showdown, like the Obama-Clinton battle of 2008, would epically divide Republicans along elite versus downscale lines, making the outcome volatile.
Perhaps all this projects too far ahead. Perhaps Palin has simply decided to flex her brand – and she’ll eventually play kingmaker by endorsing someone in return for a cabinet position. Still, if she harbours presidential ambitions, 2012 is surely a tempting chance to parlay her celebrity in a lacklustre field.
Polls show her hot on Romney’s tail, even if uncompetitive against Obama. Yet if the economy still stinks in a year’s time, who knows? A run that looks risky now may be worth it.
Palin has substantive work to do as a presidential candidate. So far, her shows of leg have been more Pippa Middleton than Angela Merkel. But she can suck the air from her rivals – including Romney, whose campaign launch frittered away to a footnote last week – simply by announcing a roadtrip and refusing to reveal where she’s going.
If any of them did that, they’d soon find themselves surrounded by little more than cornfield and cows.
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