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Palin or Romney: Republicans Weigh Passion vs. Principle

4 years ago
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If the past is prelude, Republicans will gain seats during the 2010 mid-term elections, but Barack Obama will be re-elected in November 2012. It's early, true, but history is on Obama's side: It is just difficult to oust an incumbent U.S. president.
Tradition also suggests that the Republican Party will choose either Mitt Romney or perhaps Sarah Palin to challenge him. Leaving aside the question of whether the 2012 nominee will have much of a chance, Republicans tend to follow one of two historical models when selecting a nominee to challenge a sitting incumbent.
The most often repeated template is for Republicans to select the person whose "turn" it is to run for president. That's how the Grand Old Party opted for Richard Nixon, John McCain, Bob Dole -- and even George H.W. Bush. The other, less frequently employed model, says: "If you're going to send up a long shot candidate anyway -- perhaps a 'sacrificial lamb' -- why not go with your heart?" That's how the GOP chose conservative firebrand Barry Goldwater as its standard-bearer in 1964, a decision that guaranteed a landslide victory for Democrats.
Today, the perfunctory, "next in line" theory suggests that the most likely GOP nominee will be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. While Romney dropped-out of the 2008 campaign earlier than Mike Huckabee, most conservatives concede that Romney finished in second place – and that is certainly the view held by the McCainiacs. So, by the logic that led to the nominations of McCain and Dole, it's Romney's turn. Even if rank-and-file conservatives find him less than perfect concede that he's paid his dues.
But what about the other model? Who is this year's Goldwater -- and, just maybe, our Reagan? Who is the person movement conservatives really want? It sure ain't Mike Huckabee. And it might be Sarah Palin.
Palin is the only potential candidate on the Republican side with star power. It's hard to quantify that trait, but Reagan had it. Ever since his time, Republicans have been convinced that charisma is king. And, as a friend recently told me, "When liberals continuously deride her, many conservatives take it as an attack upon themselves." That's a powerful rallying mechanism. Nominating Palin is a way for conservatives to stick it to Eastern elites.
Of course, that doesn't mean the Republicans would win; Goldwater certainly didn't. If Obama is going to be tough to beat, the question becomes almost a philosophical one: If you're going to lose anyway, is it better to lose atop the horse you really want to ride? Moreover, as all conservatives know, the great Goldwater defeat of 1964 set the table -- although it took awhile -- for the Reagan Revolution. (Ronald Reagan, of course, is sui generis: He fits both models: The old guy who has waited his turn and the true blue conservative that the GOP "base" really wanted.)
We don't have Reagan waiting to run in 2012, and so it's a time, as The Gipper would say, for choosing. After years of holding our noses and defending Republican establishment types, conservatives might find it fun to take a big chance on an unapologetic conservative. Don't forget, primaries are not a national election, but a series of state contests and caucuses in which the participants are a political party's most committed members. Palin may not play well in New York, but how about in the caucuses of Iowa, where Pat Robertson finished ahead of Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988? Or South Carolina, where Reagan broke through in 1980?
With three years to go, predictions are a risky business. Palin may not even run. And perhaps someone such as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour will emerge as the conservatives' darling. If recent elections are any guide, the Republicans' heads will tell them to choose Mitt Romney. Their hearts whisper something else. Is "Sarah" the name of this siren song?

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