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05.27.11

Sarah Palin's Calling the Shots for the 2012 GOP Field

If the 2012 Republican field may be a circus, Sarah Palin is unquestionably its ringmaster, kicking off a bus tour next week that’s much more than a publicity stunt. But Mark McKinnon says she’s about to hit an immovable object.

She’s become the P.T. Barnum of politics. She’s the ringmaster of a political media circus who commands attention wherever she goes. Next week Palinpalooza kicks off another round of frenzy and speculation.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? That is the Palin paradox.

The wheels on her bus go ’round and ’round, propelled by the power of the Tea Party movement—and the compulsive binge-purge mania of the media. Her every move is publicized, analyzed. Her every foible magnified. She is irresistible. And the pundits are riveted, asking, as if watching the low-speed chase of a white Ford Bronco all over again: Where the hell is she going?

Sarah Palin is brilliant. She is a media magnet and a media magnate. She creates headlines and draws crowds wherever she goes, whether it’s 98 degrees in the desert of Arizona or below freezing in the snow of Wisconsin. She has built “Sarah Palin Inc.,” a conglomerate of publishing, political analysis, and public-speaking ventures. Her online posts are relished by her more than 3 million Facebook followers, and ridiculed by the political class. But her endorsement in the historic midterm GOP sweep was the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for many social conservatives in mainstream America. And that ability to ignite a movement is what her opponents fear most.

With pundits and the public atwitter, Palin begins her “One Nation” tour this weekend at the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally in Washington aboard a shiny new cross-country coach boldly emblazoned: “One Nation. Under God. Indivisible. With Liberty and Justice for All.” Next week, iconic images of Palin on a hawg will light up the Internet. It will be like Caesar on a chariot with six white horses.

It would be easy to dismiss this tour of historic locales along the East Coast, coincidentally including New Hampshire, site of the nation’s first presidential primary for 2012, as a publicity stunt. But Palin is about more than publicity. She is the voice of many who share her conservative beliefs and feel they are still not being heard, not being represented in Washington. To belittle her as a thumper/clinger is to diminish many hardworking folks in the heart of the nation.

Next week, iconic images of Palin on a hawg will light up the Internet. It will be like Caesar on a chariot with six white horses.

But Palin is hurtling at high speed toward three seemingly immovable objects: declining favorable ratings among Republican voters, high unfavorables among the media, and high unfavorables among the GOP establishment elite.

According to recent Gallup polling of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, Palin enjoys the highest name recognition among declared and undeclared 2012 Republican presidential candidates, but with less positive intensity than Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann. In a March Washington Post-ABC News poll, her unfavorable rating was at 37 percent, higher than Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. And although 58 percent of those same folks rate Palin favorably, that’s a 12-point drop from last year, and a 30-point drop from 2008.

For the media, she is like crack, especially for those who criticize her the most. The thoroughly addicted Chris Matthews offers: “[O]f course I want her to run, in the worst way...”

And her opponents dismiss her, but at their own peril. A Republican adviser close to front-runner Mitt Romney scoffs, “[S]he’s kind of an entertainer...” If Mitt had a little entertainer in him, he might be leaving the pack behind.

While it's uncertain what Palin will do, this much we know. She will not be ignored. And if Palin doesn't run, you can bet she begins calling in plays from the sidelines. It's hard to see her endorsing Bachmann, but it's not hard to imagine her anointing Rick Perry, with whom she is close and shares a political base and anti-Washington populism.

This supposedly boring GOP field may be about to get pretty entertaining. Palin, Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Cain battling for the same space? Look out, folks. Here comes the circus. And right now, the ringmaster is calling the shots.

As vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton and Public Strategies, and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono. McKinnon is co-founder of No Labels and co-chair of Arts & Labs.