If I removed the name Palin from the two preceding paragraphs, then asked if the anonymous pol in question was laying the groundwork for a presidential bid, the answer would be clear: duh. And this is the kind of Occam’s-razor reasoning that has led so many Republican professionals to reach the conclusion that Palin is doing precisely that. Mark McKinnon, who served as both McCain’s and Bush’s media savant, thinks so, as do most of his colleagues, including Dowd, on those two campaigns. Grover Norquist, who spent his first real time with Palin at the Breakers and came away impressed, agrees. “She’s doing everything you do if you’re gonna run,” he says.
But Norquist adds a caveat: that Palin’s behavior also comports with merely seeking to enhance her stature in the GOP. Among the dwindling band of doubters about her intentions, this line of thinking is central to their argument—along with a sense that Palin understands how risky a presidential bid would be to her stature. “I think she’s a smart person, and she knows she’s in a position now where she has the most to lose by running,” says Weber. “If Tim Pawlenty runs and doesn’t make it, he’ll still become a national figure, his standing will be enhanced. But she is now the leader of the conservative movement, one of the most important leaders of the Republican Party, and if she gets beat out there, she will lose her standing. And that could affect her politically—and financially.”
Weber’s analysis is coherent, but it imputes a degree of rationality to Palin that many Republicans consider, well, overgenerous. “I always thought it would be a matter of which part of her superseded the other, her intelligence or her ambition, and I think ambition will ultimately win out,” says McKinnon. “She cracked the door in Iowa, and once that door’s cracked, it’s impossible to close, because all the adulators and supporters around her are going to tell her she has to run, that it’s her calling, that it’s fate, that it’s God’s will—and once that starts to happen, it’s very difficult to say no.”
Americans Elect wants to nominate a “balanced presidential ticket that will bridge the vital center of American public opinion.”
Equally to the point, Palin evinces absolutely no desire to demur. Much to the contrary, she seems to be itching to take on Obama, to go after him with a ferocity that she believes McCain was too gun-shy to muster in 2008—not simply to satisfy her ambition but to gain vindication. In San Jose, she returned repeatedly to the campaign, claiming that Obama had revealed his redistributionist, tax-raising impulses on the trail (“He told Joe the Plumber that’s what he was gonna do”); taking a shot at Michelle Obama (“When I hear people say … that they had never been proud of America until that time, I think, Haven’t they met anybody in uniform yet?”); even relitigating her disastrous sit-downs with Katie Couric. “I’m still kickin’ myself for rolling my eyes” when Couric asked what newspapers and magazines she consumed, Palin said. “I got this look from this interviewer like I was some Neanderthal alien, like, ‘Do you read in Alaska?’ So I rolled my eyes, and that forever has haunted me.”
Palin’s path to vindication might turn out to be full of potholes and dead ends, but the road map she might follow is more clearly marked than many now assume. With her stratospheric name recognition and presumed capacity to raise millions quickly from her devotees via the web, Palin would be able to hold off on wading in much longer than her rivals, perhaps until as late as next fall. In the view of most Republican strategists, on the day she enters she obliterates all of the other candidates in the anti-Establishment bracket—which is why some deem her the front-runner today. “If she runs, given the intensity of her base, she will be for sure one of the two finalists coming down the homestretch,” says a veteran GOP campaign hand. “You can’t say that about anyone else in the party.”
Beyond the intensity of her grassroots following, Palin would bring to the race two other significant advantages, the first being the calendar. That she would be the prohibitive favorite in Iowa, where the caucuses are dominated by Evangelical voters, is considered a given by most strategists. But, in fact, all of the first four states might provide fertile ground for Palin. “Iowa and New Hampshire both are places in which the tea party has manifested itself,” observes Dowd. “In South Carolina, [firebrand Senator] Jim DeMint has already shown that he’s a force to be reckoned with. And Nevada’s nominated Sharron Angle.”
Palin’s second advantage, nearly incalculable in its scale and implications, is her ability simultaneously to drive and saturate the electronic media, new and old—the way that cable chronicles her every twitch, that with a trifling tweet she often earns 24 hours of breathless nonstop coverage. “It’ll be something that we’ve never seen before,” says John Weaver. “Obama wasn’t like that until the general election.”