How will the Establishment candidates cope with all of this? “The first thing it does is completely freaks them out,” says McKinnon. “And the hard part is, it’s going to be difficult for them to go after her, because she’s so popular [within the party]”—and also because she’s likely to be the only woman in a large field of men. “If you have somebody who can operate the way she does,” adds another strategist, “which is totally outside of political convention, where she does not engage with the free press, she does not answer questions when she speaks, her communication is done in 140-character bursts on Twitter or on a Facebook post, her ability to have the nine other people who are running afraid to disagree with her is problematic, right? It forces a guy like Pawlenty to say things that are obviously not true, like ‘Sarah Palin of course is prepared to be president!’ ”
In truth, what the Establishment candidates are likely to do is focus on their own bracket—on emerging as the Palin alternative around which the non-tea-party elements of the GOP coalesce. “If you’re a traditional candidate, you have to run a traditional campaign,” counsels Castellanos. “There will be an opportunity to seize that mantle, the Establishment, Reaganesque, visionary Republican mantle. My advice would be, don’t run in Sarah Palin’s primary. Go win your primary.”
Even with the rise of the tea party, the widespread presumption is that, in the end, the Establishment candidate would prevail: “As Republicans, that’s our history, that’s our DNA,” notes Castellanos. Enhancing that presumption is another: that Palin will be prone to such horrific gaffes, appalling missteps, and gratuitous misstatements that they will clarify for Republican voters what selecting her would mean. “There’s a strong, strong possibility that she will falter, will make some big mistake,” says Weber. “Then it becomes a little bit like Howard Dean, where the party finally looks at her and says, ‘Gee, we like a lot of what she says, a lot of what she stands for, but she would lead us to a disaster.’ ”
But as Weber himself acknowledges, there is another possibility—one that he says is much on the mind of his old friend Newt Gingrich. “She could just take off and sweep everything,” Weber offers glumly.
“You can’t talk about that without talking about the culture in which we live,” says a senior strategist. “Reality-TV culture has taken over real life, which, together with opinion news, she is using more effectively than anyone. At the end of the day, her ability to create a spectacle, get a crowd, whip up people—is that translatable into a plurality victory in a Republican primary? It’s impossible to know. Because you’ve never seen anything like it. It’s totally uncharted territory.”
An Establishment Republican might beat Palin on this terra incognita, but it will not be because the Republican Establishment retains the sway to thwart her. “Would that be the same Republican Establishment that saw so many of its Senate candidates lose in primaries this year?” Weaver asks. “There is no Establishment. That used to exist. It doesn’t anymore. Palin could only be stopped by voters. It’s not gonna be a group of wise men and women. No backroom bosses. No group of donors. None of that. If she runs, it will be as dramatic a fight as we’ve had for the soul of the party. Obama has given us the opportunity to have a shortcut out of the wilderness. But there’s a fork in the road, and if she wins the nomination, the direction we’ve chosen is the one right back into the woods.”
Naturally, that is exactly what Democrats hope will happen. But, as Obama and his advisers are all too keenly aware, there may be others who feel the same way—and one in particular who could be a problem several billion ways to Sunday.
The week after the former Alaska governor left California, the current mayor of New York City arrived in the state. The purpose of Bloomberg’s visitation, like Palin’s, was political: He was there to confer his endorsement on Meg Whitman, the Republican gubernatorial candidate running a hair behind Jerry Brown. (Once again, California is proving a political template for the nation—because heaven knows, nothing says change like Jerry Brown.) But whereas Whitman refused to be seen in the same Zip Code as Sister Sarah, she happily shared a stage with Mayor Mike to receive his imprimatur.
The Whitman endorsement wasn’t Bloomberg’s first of this midterm season. Just the day before, he had been in Colorado, bestowing his blessings on Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, the Democratic senator and gubernatorial candidate from Colorado, respectively. Before that, there was the fund-raiser at Bloomberg’s pad for Harry Reid, as well as his backing of Republican Senate candidates from Illinois (Mark Kirk) and Delaware (Mike Castle, who was toppled by Christine O’Donnell), and the Republican-turned-independent running for governor in Rhode Island (Lincoln Chafee).