GOP Hopefuls Speak No Ill of Palin - for Now

GOP Hopefuls Speak No Ill of Palin - for Now

By Scott Conroy - December 14, 2010

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has lauded former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as "terrific" and a "qualified, capable person." In an interview with RealClearPolitics, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty raved that she is a "successful leader" with a "very bright future in front of her." Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich applauded her impact on the Republican Party at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, calling her "tremendously important" and warning that "nobody should underestimate her."

At this preliminary stage in the slowly developing Republican primary season, the likely presidential contenders have settled on various early strategies and levels of public engagement, but there is one tactic they all seem to agree on: speak only in glowing terms about former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. But how long the pro-Palin refrains will last remains an open question.

According to GOP consultant Mike Murphy, who has been a consistent Palin critic, potential GOP candidates are smart to hold their fire for the time being.

"There will be such a media obsession with her that the best the other candidates can do is stand back and let her peak early," he told RealClearPolitics. "The worst thing you can do in a campaign is obsess about things you can't control, like your opponent's press."

Murphy, who said that he does not expect Palin to win the GOP nomination if she does decide to run, added that the other potential candidates' most pressing concern in the early stages of the campaign will be figuring out how to sell themselves to Republican primary voters and that engaging directly with Palin at this point would almost certainly be counterproductive.

"The media is dying for somebody to run as a Republican Palin-trasher, but pleasing the media is not the key strategic way you win the Republican nomination," he said. "The media obsession with Palin will guarantee that all her issues get aired to death anyway. There's no need for other candidates to engage in any of it."

But once the campaign gets into full swing, the other Republican candidates will have a hard time trying to ignore the woman who could become the defining factor of the race.

Should he decide to seek the GOP nomination for a second time, Mike Huckabee figures to be the top-tier candidate who might be most pressed to contrast himself with Palin, since the two former governors share a similar political base among social conservatives and have somewhat comparable populist personas on the stump.

Huckabee has spoken in almost completely positive terms about Palin thus far, but in an August radio interview, he dropped a hint of what might become a key element of his battle plan against her should the two end up becoming direct competitors.

"She's a very popular person," Huckabee told NPR's Tom Ashbrook. "A lot of people love her. She's a celebrity, and I respect that very much."

The backhanded compliment about Palin's "celebrity" status could prove an effective tool for Huckabee to raise questions about the depth of her appeal but might also leave him open to a similar countercharge, considering his own recent career as a Fox News television personality, albeit one who has enjoyed significantly less widespread media visibility than Palin.

But perhaps the most salient line of attack that her potential GOP rivals might use against her is criticism of her decision to resign with a year and a half left in her first term as governor.

Despite their almost universal praise for Palin's ability to energize the party, there have already been several instances in which Republican White House hopefuls have drawn attention to her early resignation.

After Palin stepped down in July of 2009, Pawlenty in an interview with Fox News carefully made sure to emphasize that Palin would "continue to be a strong voice and a leader for the Republican Party" but then drew a sports analogy in which he suggested that it was time for the Republican Party to "get some new draft picks."

Huckabee had an even starker immediate reaction to Palin's surprising move, telling Fox News at the time, "Even if she did get out primarily because of a feeling of being chased, that's not going to stop if she continues in politics."

And even the typically message-disciplined Romney could not help himself from getting in what was perceived as a jab at Palin in a recent interview with Jay Leno. When the comedian pressed Romney about his own four-year term as governor, the 2008 Republican candidate who is likely to give it another shot in 2012 said that it would have been "hard to imagine a circumstance where I'd have quit."

Palin and her aides are well aware of the potential pitfalls that her resignation might present to mounting a successful candidacy and have long argued that her decision to step down was necessitated by circumstances beyond her control, primarily the onslaught of frivolous ethics complaints that had taken up an increasing amount of her time.

Despite her potential vulnerability on this issue, her Republican rivals will have to be careful about pressing too hard on any line of attack against Palin since they likely will not be able to afford offending her legions of diehard supporters.

But if the other contenders themselves are reluctant to press too hard out of fear of appearing to be bullies, their surrogates likely will be eager to do it for them.

In an interview with The Kansas City Star that was posted on Saturday, retiring Republican Missouri Sen. Kit Bond gave a preview of what may become a mantra emanating from many more Republican leaders who are critical of Palin. Bond listed three of his favorite potential contenders for the GOP nomination before expressing his "reservations about anyone who quits as governor halfway through the term."

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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