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Could This Be Sarah Palin’s Moment?

We’re at a very strange juncture in the 2012 presidential contest. Rick Perry continues to struggle, as Mitt Romney savagely exploits his offensive-to-conservatives position on immigration and the Texan deals with new, potentially damaging revelations of a racially insensitive name for a hunting camp rented by his family. But Romney’s not benefitting much in the polls, and he remains a persona non grata to many conservatives. And the candidate with the current buzz, Herman Cain, is many miles away from being taken seriously by GOP elites as a potential nominee.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Late last week Reuters reported that influential conservative activists upset about Perry’s performance were begging Mike Huckabee to reconsider his decision to give 2012 a pass. (Huck quickly denied he was listening to such pleadings, but not that they were being made.) Chris Christie, meanwhile, is reportedly struggling with demands that he repudiate his own assessment of himself as “not ready” to serve as president and jump into the race. But if Christie doesn’t answer the bell, is there any doubt a certain universally known, beloved-of-the-base politician will hear her name on the restless wind and give fresh consideration to the prospect of “going rogue” and running for president? Yes, this could be Sarah Palin’s moment to confound her critics, to send the GOP establishment types she hates even more than liberals into frantic hysteria, and most of all, to gain the attention she craves.

AT THIS LATE STAGE, it’s become impossible not to understand that time has all but run out on potential last-minute candidates—except for those with universal name ID, massive fundraising potential, and a plausible path to the nomination. Florida’s decision to move its presidential primary to January 31, followed by South Carolina’s move to January 21, means that the formal nominating process will almost certainly begin in Iowa on January 2—less than three months from now, if not earlier. 

Palin has long been written off as a possible 2012 candidate by pundits who look at her terrible general-election poll ratings and her questionable work ethic and conclude her chronic refusal to rule out a run is no more than a ruse to keep her name in the news. She hasn’t made any effort to put together a skeleton organization or to sustain any sort of continuous presence in national political discourse. But throughout the “invisible primary,” Palin has consistently said that if she wanted to, she could run the kind of wildly unconventional campaign that makes polling, organization, and the attitudes of elites completely irrelevant. It is perhaps worth considering the possibility that she believes what she is saying. If she does, the current situation must look tempting indeed. 

Just look at Iowa. The winner of the Ames Straw Poll, Michele Bachmann, whose early success was thought to represent a conclusive preemption of any Palin candidacy, is now, to quote one prominent report, “running on fumes” in her native state, reduced to campaigning in a few major cities and handing out leftover literature asking voters to show up in Ames. Cain never much set up an Iowa campaign to begin with. Romney seems determined to avoid the commitment to Iowa that tripped him up in 2008. And Perry’s immigration heresy is clearly hurting him in a state where nativist champ Steve King is a political icon. Is there any solid reason to believe Palin couldn’t leap into the race in the first-in-the-nation caucus and become a serious competitor? Similarly, there is no way to anticipate how rank-and-file conservatives might react to the kind of mammoth, sustained news-cycle-dominating mockery and vilification Palin would immediately attract were she to finally take the plunge. At least initially, a Palin candidacy would all but blot out the sun.    

Might this scenario be irresistible to St. Joan of the Tundra, for whom resentment at mockery by elites has always been the source of her unique bond with the conservative base? That’s hard to say. In a recent interview with her buddy Greta Van Susteren, Palin said her main concern about running for president is that she wasn’t sure the job would give her any more influence than she has today. She also said that over half the electorate was composed of independents who were tired of the existing Republican field’s “bickering” and were mainly concerned about finding a champion to oppose Obama’s “socialist policies.” Clearly, she lives in a world characterized by different facts and different assumptions about politics than most of us. But so, too, do many of the grassroots conservatives who will determine the GOP presidential nomination. A new Washington Post poll shows that 83 percent of self-identified Republicans, and 91 percent of Tea Party supporters, believe that the Republican candidate, whoever it is, will defeat Barack Obama. 

In other words, these are not people obsessed with “electability,” or who give much credence to current polls showing Obama actually leading every named GOP candidate other than (occasionally) Romney. They want a conservative champion, and with anti-Washington and anti-politician sentiments at all time highs, maybe even somewhat a bit “mavericky.” 

Of course, maybe Chris Christie will jump into the race and become for many Republicans the liberal-baiting champion they crave—at least until, like Perry, he has to undergo a close analysis of his heterodox positions and utterances. But if Christie takes a pass, don’t be too surprised if Palin sees an opening to dominate the political airwaves and internet for weeks and months to come. And don’t be too surprised if a shocking number of Republican voters forget about her allegedly toxic persona and respond to her primitive cry of defiance of everyone who has ever underestimated her—or taken them for granted.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.