The most prominent potential contestants in the tea-party bracket are the Fox News candidates, literally (all are on Rupert Murdoch’s payroll) and figuratively: Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Palin. Among insiders, Huckabee is widely written off because he lacks the capacity to raise big cash and his appeal is limited to Evangelicals, whose influence is fading in the party; many insiders expect him not to run.
The opposite is true of Gingrich. Unlike in 2008, when public speculation about his diving in was matched by private reluctance on his part, this time the former Speaker of the House appears intent on running. But while Gingrich has garnered plenty of headlines with his rhetorical napalm blasts—comparing backers of the ground-zero mosque to Nazis, saying that Obama has a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview, asserting that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius behaves in “the spirit of the Soviet tyranny”—his inability to moderate or modulate himself causes Republican pros to discount his viability. “We Republicans are so desperate for an ideas guy like Newt Gingrich that sometimes we even turn to Newt Gingrich,” says Castellanos. “[But] he is not a serious candidate for president.”
Another conceivable tea-party suitor is Texas governor Rick Perry, who appears on the verge of winning his third full term in office. Running in a primary against Kay Bailey Hutchison, the state’s senior U.S. senator, Perry became a darling of the Washington-haters when he suggested that Texas might secede from the union. Having balanced his state’s budget every year by keeping a lid on spending, he is beloved by fiscal hawks; packing a .380 Ruger (which he used to plug a coyote recently when it threatened his dog while they were jogging—the coyote “became mulch,” he said), he’s a hero to Second Amendment zealots and shit-kickers alike.
But Perry hasn’t given the slightest public indication that he’s interested in running, and even if he did get in, he might well prove no match for Palin in the anti-Establishment tier. “She has a greater claim to outsider status than anybody else in the race or who might get into the race,” says Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman who backed Romney in 2008 and will be with Pawlenty this time around. “Whether it’s tea-party activists, Evangelicals, or whatever stripe of activist you’re talking about, she has the strongest grassroots base, the most credibility, and the greatest appeal of anybody in the party.”
Weber pauses. “If she runs, she’s a very serious factor,” he says. “Everyone’s strategy is going to have to change—everyone’s. It’s a big computation to make.”
After Palin finished her quasi-prepared remarks in San Jose, she planted herself in a chair positioned a few feet stage left and proceeded to engage in ten minutes of Q&A with the honcho from the Liberty & Freedom Foundation. The Qs were big fat floating softballs (“Isn’t there a better way to lower that $1.4 trillion deficit than just using tax increases?”), but one hinted obliquely at the matter on everybody’s mind: “There are going to be a lot of people running [for president] in 2012 … With such a crowded field coming up, do you think that’s gonna help or hurt the eventual candidates?”
“Competition breeds success and makes everybody work harder,” Palin said. “So I want to see a very aggressive contested primary where everybody has to engage … Now, contested primaries, even through this last election cycle, it’s been very interesting, it’s been fun to be able to engage in them. I’ve endorsed candidates who maybe were second or third or fourth in line down in the polls, maybe underfunded, outgunned, you know, heretofore unknown, and to endorse them, it’s always a double-edged sword, because, you know, if I put my name in close to their campaign, then they’re under extra scrutiny and they get clobbered in the press—and I feel horrible for them! So, more power to those bold ones who accept my endorsement!”
For those who believe Palin plans to run in 2012, the fact that she has thrown herself into so many races—to date, she has endorsed 56 candidates, 35 of them tea-partyers—is a significant piece of evidence. There are others. The fund-raising total for her PAC through September 30 ($2.5 million) ranks behind only Romney among potential candidates. She has given more than 70 speeches this year all across the country. In September, she dipped her toe in the Iowa waters by headlining the state party’s annual Ronald Reagan Dinner.
Much was made of the fact that Palin did none of the traditional kowtowing to Republican activists and local officials in the Hawkeye State. Yet, in other places, she has begun courting GOP lever-pullers whose support is critical to winning the nomination. Earlier this month, Palin attended a closed-door dinner at the Breakers in Palm Beach, hosted by the CEO of the conservative media company Newsmax and attended by several dozen A-list insiders, and repeatedly invoked the memory of Reagan. In doing so, she not only tried implicitly to rebut concerns about her electability—noting that naysayers said the same about the Gipper in 1980—but imbue herself with an optimism that some Republicans have found lacking in her relentless assaults on Obama. (In San Jose, she name-checked Reagan eleven times, often in proximity to terms such as “positive” or “exceptionalism.”)