OK, so it’s not going to be Sarah Palin in ’12 …

... but the Republicans still have to nominate someone to run against Barack Obama. Who will it be?

Topics: Sarah Palin, War Room, 2012 Elections, Barack Obama, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney,

OK, so it's not going to be Sarah Palin in '12 ...Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks during a rally in Anaheim, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)(Credit: Jae C. Hong)

One of the consequences of Sarah Palin’s decision to break her silence on the Tucson tragedy just hours before President Obama was to address a nationally televised memorial service on Wednesday is that the next day’s news coverage is filled with observations like this, from Politico’s Jonathan Martin:

At sunrise in the east on Wednesday, Sarah Palin demonstrated that she has little interest — or capacity — in moving beyond her brand of grievance-based politics. And at sundown in the west, Barack Obama reminded even his critics of his ability to rally disparate Americans around a message of reconciliation.

Of course, this was a competition that Palin was never going to win. Some of it has to do with her. As I noted yesterday, it’s just not in her nature to bite her tongue when she feels that her opponents are actively wronging her, even if it would be in her best interests politically. I happen to believe the attention that’s been paid to Palin’s rhetoric and to her cross-hairs map since last Saturday has been unwarranted; the connection between Gabrielle Giffords’ shooter and right-wing rhetoric that many initially assumed simply doesn’t exist — and claims that the “political climate” pushed Jared Loughner over the edge strike me as a slippery, speculative and impossible to prove way for Palin critics to attach some blame to her anyway. To me, at least, she has a legitimate gripe — but by making her own sense of victimhood the main thrust of her speech, Palin was setting herself up for a world of grief.

But even if she had taken a different tone, there was still no way of avoiding unfavorable comparisons with Obama. After all, if there’s one thing Obama unfailingly excels at, it’s delivering a big speech. The president’s skills as an off-the-cuff communicator — in press conferences, at town hall events — are often derided, and he’s not particularly inspiring when it comes to Oval Office addresses either. But put him in a giant arena filled with a friendly crowd, and he will deliver — always. Add in the fact, as Jonathan Bernstein noted this morning, that it was “an easy speech” because everyone wanted Obama to succeed, and there was just no way that his address wasn’t going to be heralded almost universally as a home run — and that, by comparison, commentators would judge Palin’s harshly.

My sense is that the events of the last week have been very helpful to Republicans who do not want Palin to be their nominee in 2012. As we’ve noted, a growing number of influential conservatives were already throwing cold water on the idea of a Palin ’12 campaign even before Tucson. And their words seemed to be having an effect: Between the end of 2009 and the end of 2010, the number of Republican voters who said they were open to the idea of backing Palin dropped by 20 points. This didn’t happen with any other major Republican eyeing the race. When you look at what’s happened in the last week — the fact that the left immediately zoomed in on Palin when this tragedy struck, that the media so readily played along and made her the focus in its aftermath, and that Palin chose to respond in the manner she did (and that she chose to do so on a day that invited impossible to win comparisons with Obama) — it should only hasten Palin’s demise within her own party. Yes, of course, a lot can happen in the next 12 months, and Tucson may be a long-forgotten memory by then. But Palin’s problems are much bigger than Tucson.

Maybe Palin will end up running, and maybe she won’t. I can now easily imagine a scenario in which she realizes that an embarrassing finish is likely, declines to run, and signs on for another season of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” Or maybe she’ll plow ahead with a campaign anyway. But I don’t think she looms as quite the 800-pound gorilla we all took her for just a few months ago, when Palin-ish Tea Party candidates were scoring upset wins in major Republican Senate primaries.

If this is true, then the biggest beneficiary is probably Mike Huckabee, whose base overlaps more with Palin’s than any other top-tier Republican. Winning Iowa, like he did in 2008, is key to any ’12 strategy for Huckabee. He can do it in a field without Palin or with a severely weakened Palin. But if she were to run and pull a significant share of the vote, it would potentially be at his expense.

A weak-nonexistent Palin candidacy probably hurts Mitt Romney the most. There’s a theory that Iowa, with its Christian/activist-oriented caucus electorate, will essentially serve to anoint a cultural conservative candidate, while New Hampshire, where the Republican electorate has been hostile to Southern- and religious-tinted conservatism in past presidential primaries (9 percent for Pat Robertson in 1988, for instance), will pick the mainstream contender — and that the race will then be settled in the subsequent states. Under this theory, Romney (the clear early favorite in New Hampshire) would be much better served by a Palin victory in Iowa, since far more Republicans seem to have reservations about her than they do about Huckabee. (The same poll that showed Palin’s standing with Republicans dropping 20 points in the last year also found Huckabee to be the most popular of all the ’12 candidates.) Huckabee seems to have more crossover potential than past religious conservatives who have run for president, and the South’s dominance within the GOP is only growing. The most underreported aspect of the ’12 race right now may be how well-positioned he is to win the nomination.

Granted, there are other candidates who will end up running and who could break through, threatening Huckabee (or Palin) in Iowa or Romney in New Hampshire. And both Huckabee and Romney need to be careful about the bar being set too high in those early states. A parallel can be drawn to Bob Dole, who was called the “president of Iowa” after netting 37 percent in the 1988 caucuses — nearly doubling the total of then Vice President George H.W. Bush (who himself had beaten Ronald Reagan in the 1980 caucuses). When Dole ran again in 1996, it was widely assumed that he’d again romp through Iowa; the suspense, supposedly, was over who would finish a distant second. Dole did end up winning Iowa again, but with a meager 27 percent — just 4 points ahead of Pat Buchanan. The result was taken as a blow to Dole, who then lost New Hampshire to Buchanan. It still wasn’t enough to cost Dole the nomination, mainly because Buchanan was too polarizing even within the GOP, but it almost did: When the early New Hampshire returns showed him running in third place (behind Lamar Alexander), Dole told his team that he’d drop out if the result held.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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