2012: How Sarah Barracuda Becomes President

Photo: (L-R) Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images; Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images; Jemal Countess/Getty Images

On a pale-gold mid-October afternoon, Sarah Palin takes the stage at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, and the faithful are ready for her. The crowd, 1,500 strong, is mostly white, on the older side, and casually dressed—though in my row there’s a hulking young Samoan in full Revolutionary War regalia. For the past hour, the audience has been treated to a series of warm-up acts that aren’t your typical Northern California fare: a choir called Celestial City; the head of the outfit sponsoring the event, the Liberty & Freedom Foundation, who speaks of a conservative “reawakening”; and a local talk-radio host whose shtick is that of a bargain-basement Glenn Beck, replete with attacks on Karl Marx, Richard Nixon (for creating the EPA), Nancy Pelosi, and, of course, “Barack Hussein Obama.”

Palin’s own brand of performance art is no less barbed and no more subtle, but still infinitely fascinating. In a deep-blue jacket and tight black skirt, she uncorks a 40-minute soliloquy that is equal parts populism, moralism, stand-up comedy, and free association, all rendered in a syntax as fractured as Joe Theismann’s tibia after Lawrence Taylor got through with him. She doles out personal, if possibly fictitious, anecdotes that position her, despite the millions she has pocketed in the past two years, as a defiantly downscale girl: that she and Todd drove their motor home from Wasilla to Los Angeles (distance: 3,375 miles) to watch Bristol on Dancing With the Stars. She winks (metaphorically) at her pop-culture image, snapping off a “you betcha” and later declaring, “November 2 is right around the corner—I can see it from my house!” She rails against union bosses who are “thugs” and “elitist billionaires who are funding the leftist agenda,” while gaily mocking Obama, Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, and Jerry Brown: “They act like they’re permanent residents of some unicorn ranch in fantasyland.” She invokes the California of old as a paradise lost and declares that it must be regained: “I want you all to get to yell ‘Eureka’ in this Golden State of opportunity.” And she cites Ronald Reagan in promising the same for the country: “If we do our part, as President Reagan said … the great confident roar of American progress, growth, and optimism will resound again!”

This is a stump speech—or, at least, it sounds that way to many in the crowd. With each stanza, their cheers for Palin escalate from loud to deafening, and by the end, more than a few are shouting out, “Run, Sarah!” and “Madam President!”

Until not long ago, the only people who took seriously the notion that Palin would make a White House bid in 2012, let alone win the Republican nomination, were those who really do live at the unicorn ranch—and spend their time there huffing pixie dust. When Palin quit the Alaska governorship in 2009, her political career seemed over. And even after she resurrected herself, emerging through her media ubiquity and her aggressive endorsement strategy as arguably the most powerful figure in the GOP, much of the political world believed that she was animated by non-presidential motives. To further pad her bank account. To redeem her reputation. To turn herself into the party’s preeminent kingmaker. Or possibly all three.

But today the conventional wisdom about Palin is being revised again, nowhere more so than within the ranks of professional Republicans. Among two dozen senior strategists and operatives with whom I’ve spoken in recent days—including many of those responsible for securing the nomination for the party’s last three standard-bearers—there is a growing consensus that Palin is running or setting herself up to run. All agreed that her entry would radically and fundamentally transform the race. Most averred that if she steps into the fray, she stands a reasonable chance of claiming the Republican prize. Indeed, more than one argued that she is already the de facto front-runner.

For many Republicans, a Palin nomination would be a shrieking nightmare—just as for most Democrats, it would be a wet dream. (Asked about the possibility by reporters, David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, quipped, “Something tells me we won’t get that lucky.”) The emotions here are diametrically opposed but based on a shared conviction: that Palin, whose national approval rating in a CBS News poll this month stood at a lowly 22 percent, is irredeemably unelectable, and thus her nomination would essentially guarantee Obama a second term.

Or would it? In a two-way contest, almost certainly. But what if a Palin nomination provoked a credible independent candidacy? What if the candidacy in question was that of, oh, Michael Rubens Bloomberg? What would happen then?

That’s a lot of ifs, I hear you saying, and you are not wrong. Yet none of these twists is actually all that implausible. In fact, the likelihood of Bloomberg’s running is just as great as, if not greater than, it was when he considered taking the plunge in 2008—and that specter is very much on the minds of Obama’s people. In the past few months, the White House has made a gaudy show of sucking up to the mayor: inviting him to play golf in Martha’s Vineyard with Obama, floating his name as a potential Treasury secretary, dispatching Joe Biden and Tim Geithner to have breakfast with him and seek his economic counsel. The motivations behind the blandishments are many, but not the least is to blunt the Bloomberg threat—to keep him on the sidelines in 2012, where he and his billions would pose no danger of redrawing the electoral map in unpredictable and perilous ways.

The unpredictability and the peril would increase exponentially with Palin in the mix. This scenario might seem bizarre, but we live in bizarre times. At a moment like the present—when American politics is wildly polarized and unstable, populist fervor has gripped the right and left, and the economy continues to flatline—it’s worth contemplating how much weirder things might get in 2012, and whether that weirdness could be so extreme as to make the unthinkable thinkable.

To wit: President Palin, anyone?

On the day Palin was driving the throng into a frenzy in San Jose, Mitt Romney was in Bedminster, New Jersey, appearing at a sedate fund-raising lunch for Representative Leonard Lance. This is how Romney has spent much of 2010: tirelessly tilling the Republican fields, collecting chits and dispensing dollars from coast to coast. As of September 30, according to Politico, the former Massachusetts governor’s PAC had donated nearly $1 million to 188 candidates for the House, two dozen for the Senate, and twenty for governorships. By Election Day, his frantic schedule will have carried him to 30 states.

In a normal presidential cycle, Romney would be the clear Republican front-runner. His operation is top-notch. His PAC raked in $5.1 million in the first three quarters of the year, more than any other prospective candidate. And since he finished as runner-up to John McCain in 2008, it is, as they say, his turn—a quality that usually matters hugely in a party that has long operated in accord with the principle of primogeniture. Yet, for all of his dogged efforts, Romney has failed to solidify his status as the man to beat. A recent NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll found that his favorability among conservative voters is just 30 percent.

The reasons are myriad, but paramount among them is his role in enacting a health-care law in Massachusetts that bears a striking similarity to the controversial (and loathed on the right) federal overhaul that Democrats passed this year. Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s campaign in 1996, argues that Obamacare in 2012 will be “what Iraq was to the Democrats last time, the defining issue and a fault line in the party”—one that may well prove as harmful to Romney as Hillary Clinton’s vote authorizing the war was to her in 2008. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, likens Romney’s history on health care to “a boat anchor attached to his leg,” which he needs to get rid of “or [his candidacy] doesn’t work.” Can he do it? “Yeah, just explain it was the crystal meth,” Norquist cracks.

Health care may be the most acute of Romney’s ailments, but it is symptomatic of a deeper malady: his uneasy fit with a party base where all of the energy is flowing toward insurgency. “Candidates like Romney have been getting killed all around the country,” says the consultant Alex Castellanos, who advised the governor in 2008. “It’s Romney who’s lost seven or eight Republican primaries—Establishment candidates who’ve been overthrown.”

Castellanos is talking about the effect of the tea party, which is all but certain to be anything but diminished by the midterm results on November 2. “That group of folks is gonna be more passionate, more energized, and more engaged,” argues Matthew Dowd, George W. Bush’s chief strategist in 2004. Their ire, too, may be exacerbated in the event that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell fail to sate their anti-government yearnings with dramatic cuts in spending and taxes and a repeal of Obamacare—a likely outcome given Boehner and McConnell’s insider proclivities and the president’s veto pen.

Romney will not be the only candidate given fits by the rise of the tea party. Today, there are four other potential establishmentarian candidates giving serious thought to running: Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, and South Dakota senator John Thune. And all have résumés, temperaments, and/or policy positions unlikely to sit well with the tea-partyers: Barbour is a former Republican National Committee chairman and big-time corporate lobbyist; Daniels was Bush’s budget director and a longtime Beltway player; Pawlenty is an erstwhile liberal on climate change; and Thune is, well, a senator, and a milquetoasty one at that.

“All those guys, they could try and turn it up and have the fervor, but voters are gonna read through it,” says Dowd. “It’s just not authentic to them, because they’ve been part of the Washington scene or taking part in state politics, where they cut deals and made compromises—which is part of governing but lethal in this environment.”

On this reading, the tea party and its populist brethren seem likely to emerge as the new Christian right, only more powerful—not merely exercising an effective veto over any nominee but altering the underlying dynamics of the race. “There will be two simultaneous primaries: a mainstream-conservative primary and a primary in the anti-Establishment wing of the party,” says John Weaver, McCain’s guru in 2000 and the early part of his run in 2008. “And then there’ll be a playoff down the road between the winners of the two.”

The Elephant ParadePhoto: (L-R) Mark Wilson/Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images; Ethan Miller/Getty Images; Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images; Spencer Platt/Getty Images; Steve Pope/Getty Images; Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

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.”)

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.”

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).

The sight of Bloomberg affixing his seal of approval on a clutch of picks across the land, eclectic in their party labels but consistent in their moderation, has stirred questions about his motives—and national aspirations. Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson says that his boss is doing little more than wielding his influence to blunt the purity-crazed polarization that Bloomberg regards as a national curse. “The mayor wants to help elect centrists for office at all levels,” says Wolfson. “He believes that it’s critical that we have elected officials who can and will work in a bi-partisan way in order to get things done.”

There is, of course, an alternative explanation: that the mayor’s peregrinations are an informal campaign of their own. That he is trying to raise his national visibility and take the temperature of the body politic. That he is once again considering an independent presidential bid. “Oh, he’s more than thinking about it,” says a Bloomberg confidant. “He’s full-bore, all-out exploring it.”

Anyone whose memory isn’t terminally addled will recall that Bloomberg embarked on a similar voyage three years ago, but ultimately decided that 2008 was not the year for him to make a bootleg scramble for the White House. In no small part, Bloomberg reached that conclusion because he regarded Obama and McCain more or less as centrists, too close to his own worldview and governing philosophy to leave enough running room for him. A lot has changed since then, however—from Obama’s dramatic loss of support among independent voters and the equally striking disaffection he has engendered in the business community to the Republicans’ collective lurch into right-wing nihilism. “The goalposts are much wider now than four years ago,” says the Bloomberg intimate.

What hasn’t changed is that Bloomberg is surrounded by people urging him to run. (A recent column in the Times by Tom Friedman, advocating a pro-business, pro-green, pro-pragmatism third party, was seen by many in Bloomie’s circle as a trial balloon.) Another constant is Kevin Sheekey, the mischievous former deputy mayor now employed at Bloomberg L.P., who was a one-man bandwagon for the idea in 2008 and is still aggressively pushing it now. Yet another is the mayor’s plain desire to be president, fueled today by the realization that, at 68, this is probably his last shot. And still another is that Bloomberg has no intention of running unless he perceives a plausible road to victory. “Unless he thinks he can win, he will not do it,” says someone else who has MRB’s ear.

One key factor, now as three years ago, is Bloomberg’s ability to get onto the ballot nationwide. Thus are Sheekey and others eagerly monitoring a new outfit called Americans Elect, which plans to launch early next year. Backed by a wealthy private investor, Peter Ackerman, the group says on its single-page website that it intends to hold a web-based convention to nominate a “balanced presidential ticket that will bridge the vital center of American public opinion” and place it “on the ballot in all 50 states.” Ackerman has already put $1.55 million into the project, with more to come.

The more pivotal factor, no doubt, will be the behavior of the White House and both parties in the next eighteen months. “The likely scenario is that the economy will rebound, Obama will recover his footing, move back to the center, and take back every voter that he’s lost,” says Mark Penn, chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “But if Obama doesn’t change course and the Republican Party nominates Sarah Palin—and I think she is running and has a high likelihood of winning—then America could look at both parties and say, ‘You don’t have what I’m looking for.’ And that will pose a real opportunity, whether it’s for Bloomberg or ten other people.”

One part of Penn’s analysis is shared by strategists in both parties: that a Palin nomination plus a further slide by Obama would tempt at least one independent or third-party challenger to step into the ring. But among the names occasionally mooted—Donald Trump? Really?—Bloomberg’s would be the most viable. His economic competence and financial acumen would appeal to moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats, and his liberal stances on the Park51 mosque, gay marriage, and other social issues might make him appealing to some progressives disappointed in Obama.

Bloomberg is well aware, because his advisers have flatly told him, that the White House is fretting about his entering the race and that this fear is what has motivated their sycophancy toward him lately. But the flattery must seem puzzling to the mayor, since the administration, in his view, has ignored his advice to be more supportive of business and stop trashing Wall Street, which, naturally, he believes would help save Obama’s bacon—a result that, in turn, would be the greatest deterrent to Bloomberg’s running.

Assuming that Palin were the nominee, just how much further would Obama have to slip for that to happen? Not long ago, I asked a person close to Bloomberg, who said that if the president’s approval rating fell into the thirties, diving in might be irresistible to the mayor. But what if it was at, say, 42 percent—four points below its current level, according to the Gallup tracking poll? “Forty-two?” this person pondered, and then smiled impishly. “That might get him in there, too.”

What would then transpire? To get Rumsfeldian for a sec, the combination of known unknowns and unknown unknowns is enough to make your head spin. But there are also a handful of known knowns: that Bloomberg’s team, probably led by Sheekey and Wolfson, would be as tough, savvy, and technologically sophisticated as any ever assembled; that the mayor, regardless of being on the ballot in 50 states, would target more like half of them where his prospects were brightest; and that he would spend more than $1 billion and maybe upward of $3 billion.

One scenario, most likely if the economy suffers a double-dip recession, is that the nation would be so desperate for capable economic management that Bloomberg would be able to overcome his vulnerabilities—his short-Jewish-unmarried-plutocratness—and find himself deposited in the Oval Office.

Another scenario, the likeliest, is that Bloomberg’s entry would secure the reelection of Obama. “There’s enough solid Republicans that even Palin gets between 26 and 30 percent of the vote,” forecasts Dowd. “And there’s enough solid Democrats that, depending on the economy, Obama gets 40 to 42 percent. That leaves Bloomberg with between 28 and 34 percent, which just isn’t enough.”

But there is a third scenario, one that involves a more granular kind of analysis-cum-speculation. By the accounts of strategists in both parties, Bloomberg—especially with the help of his billions—would stand a reasonable chance of carrying New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, and California. Combine that with a strong-enough showing in a few other places in the industrial Northeast to deny Obama those states, and with Palin holding the fire-engine-red states of the South, and the president might find himself short of the 270 electoral votes necessary to win.

Assuming you still remember the basics from American Government 101, you know what would happen next: The election would be thrown to the House of Representatives—which, after November 2, is likely to be controlled by the Republicans. The result: Hello, President Palin!

Now, if you happen to be a Democrat, your first instinct might be to dismiss all of this as a dystopian anti-fantasy, or the kind of spook story told around a campfire, scary but ultimately harmless because it’s make-believe, or maybe the ravings of a madman. (I wouldn’t argue with that last one.) Certainly, it qualifies as far-fetched.

But, then, everything about Palin’s story is far-fetched: McCain’s selection of her as his running mate, her ascension after abruptly quitting the highest post she’d ever held, her status as one of the front-runners for her party’s presidential nomination. But here she is, a phenomenon nearly—nearly—unprecedented in modern politics, a figure so electrifying to the most hopped-up segment of her party that at times she seems unstoppable.

“She’s a supernova,” says McKinnon. “The only parallel is Barack Obama. And look what happened to him.”

2012: How Sarah Barracuda Becomes President