DES MOINES, Iowa – Let the word go forth: Sarah Palin is definitely running – against Vanity Fair profile writers
, the "lame-stream media," political experts who underestimated her hand-picked Senate primary candidates and Republican "elites" who still doubt that Christine O'Donnell can win Delaware
Palin's Friday night speech to 1,500 GOP faithful paying $100 a head at the Iowa party's annual Ronald Reagan fund-raising dinner provided few clues about her 2012 political intentions, but it underscored how much fun she intends to have toying with her decision about seeking the presidency.
The former Alaska governor and the Republican Party's leading incendiary came to Iowa with an elaborate joke about her husband Todd urging her to run on the hotel treadmill rather than jogging outside in the Iowa sunlight. She said that she pressed her husband for an explanation and he said, "If anybody spots you in tennis shoes, the headline is going to be – Vanity Fair, they're going to say – 'Palin in Iowa Decides to Run.'"
More than anyone in the cheaper-by-the-dozen GOP field of White House dreamers, Palin can take her time mulling her 2012 decision since she has no worries about winning name recognition or attracting press attention if she delays. She does not have to make speeches in high school gyms in Keokuk when she has all of Fox News channeling her every thought. Palin, in fact, was probably sincere when she stressed that the election that matters is this November: "We can't wait until 2012 to get our country back on the right track -- we need to start now by electing strong leaders who aren't afraid to shake it up."
Four years ago to the day, a fledgling Illinois senator named Barack Obama provided the first whiffs that he might transform the 2008 presidential race when he beguiled 3,000 Iowa Democrats
at Sen. Tom Harkin's annual outdoor steak fry. There were no overt statements from Obama beyond a coy, "I'm going to have to come back to Iowa a lot," but one could sense his political potential among Democrats by staring at the rapt faces in the audience – a crowd scene that looked like it was lifted from a 1940s Frank Capra movie.
It is unfair to judge Palin by this standard, since it would have been difficult for even a reincarnated Pericles (or Ronald Reagan) to shine in the cavernous convention center ballroom, the site of GOP dinner. What came through more than anything in Palin's speech was her simmering anger over the way candidates like O'Donnell and Joe Miller, who upended GOP incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, have been belittled. "We can't blow it, GOP," Palin declared. "But we won't wait for that political playbook to be handed to us from on high from the political elites."
For all the intriguing parallels
between Palin and the 2006 model of Barack Obama, there is also a cosmic difference – their respective public images. A national Quinnipiac Poll
released earlier this month found that Palin had an upside-down approval rating, with only 31 percent of registered voters viewing her favorably and 50 percent giving her a thumbs-down. In contrast, the Quinnipiac poll found that Obama received a 41-to-14 favorable-to-unfavorable score from the voters in February 2007.
Polls are fluid -- and Palin, for all the raw emotions she arouses in friends and foes alike, has only been a national figure for two years. She remains popular among Republicans, although independents (who can vote in early presidential primaries in states like New Hampshire) viewed her negatively by a better than two-to-one margin in the Quinnipiac survey. While attitudes of Republican primary (and caucus) voters can be mercurial, it is a rare political party (see George McGovern) that is willing to nominate a presidential candidate who has been rejected in advance by all but passionate partisans.
Talking with Iowa Republicans during the cocktail hour before the dinner, I did pick up a whiff of ambivalence about Sarah Palin as a presidential candidate. Some of it was old-fashioned, such as the comment by Ron Siedelmann, the GOP chairman in tiny Audubon County, who said, "The question is whether the country is ready for a woman president. It's time" – a long pause – "I guess."
Cheryl Pederson, a small business owner from Des Moines who supported Mitt Romney last time around, stressed, "I want to win. I know Sarah Palin's strengths. But I don't know if she can appeal to independents." Mark Chelgren, a state senate candidate from Ottumwa, gushed about Palin even as he was expressing doubts about her driving ambition. "We've gone too long with fake people running the country," he said. "She just does what she wants – and has fun doing it. But I don't think she's running."
A little-noticed change in Republican Party rules for the 2012 presidential season may play a role in shaping Palin's ultimate decision.
Palin's most likely path to the nomination
would depend on sweeping the Iowa caucuses (made-to-order for a high intensity candidate in a multi-candidate field), surviving a probable setback in New Hampshire (those pesky independent voters) and then roaring back to win the all-important South Carolina primary (the Kingmaker State whose likely next governor, Nikki Haley, was one of the first Mama Grizzlies). After that, Palin would have a serious shot at sweeping a series of major state (California, Texas, New York) winner-take-all primaries or winner-take-all by congressional district, even though she probably could never hit 50 percent in a contested race.
But that theory exploded when the Republican National Committee recently voted to switch to proportional representation (the system that was used by the Democrats during the protracted Obama-versus-Hillary Clinton battle) for all primaries held during the first two months of the 2012 season. What that means is that it will very difficult for a divisive candidate like Palin to sweep the table before the party establishment (buffeted though it may have been recently) can regroup.
If there has been any rule governing politics for the last two years, it is never underestimate Sarah Palin. I saw that principle in action when I spoke with one of my Palin skeptics, Ron Siedelmann, immediately after the speech.
Siedelmann, who had supported Mike Huckabee in the 2008 caucuses, was a man transformed. "Sarah Palin would make a pretty good president," he said with conviction in his voice that grew with every sentence. "To me, she seemed like she's really down to earth. It's the first time that I ever sat down and listened to her. I think she'd make a damn good president."