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US 2012 presidential race: Sarah Palin is back

The race for the Republican candidate for Election 2012 is finally getting exciting, and not before

The Republican race for 2012 just got way more interesting. Yes, Sarah Palin is back – launching her "One Nation" bus tour this weekend, with a series of high-profile events across the country. She's already bought a house in Arizona and made some significant new appointments to her staff. Now her specially decorated red-white-and-blue bus will be touring the north-east, trying to recapture some of the political momentum that she has allowed to drift away.

"As we look to the future," proclaims her website, "we are propelled by America's past." Well, that certainly obeys the laws of mechanics. And if you click on her page, you get an automatic message asking for donations – to help "promote the Fundamental Restoration of America".

Since Donald Trump formally bowed out, it's been Newt Gingrich who's provided some of the lighter moments, what with his comments about Paul Ryan's Medicare plan being "radical" and "right-wing social engineering". Then there was his $500,000 bill from Tiffany's: a rather unfortunate start for a candidate promoting the merits of fiscal conservatism.

Now, though – as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachmann prepare to make their formal announcements next week – we might have a race that's worth watching.

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But is Palin really a serious candidate, or just a sideshow? Fairly serious, according to the polls, though polls don't reveal much at this stage, given that many of the potential 2012 field are hardly household names. However, the latest survey, by Gallup, shows that the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney shares top billing with Palin among Republican voters, with other candidates left trailing in their wake.

The polls also show that she is one of the GOP's most polarising figures: overwhelming numbers of independent voters say they'd never vote for her, while more than a third of Republican supporters think likewise. Most people still think she's nowhere near qualified enough to be president – and attitudes like that are hard to break, when your character and track record are as public as Palin's.

But where her talents definitely lie is in self-publicity: the woman positively radiates self-confidence, and her rivals must be worried that she'll suck up all the oxygen of this campaign. None more so than Michelle Bachmann, the other right-wing Republican woman with her eyes on the White House, courting a conservative, Tea Party activist base.

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The Minnesota congresswoman is gearing up to announce her candidacy in Iowa next week – in the appropriately named town of Waterloo. She's just been holding an intensive fundraising drive, collecting an impressive $250,000 in a single day. But guess who's hogging the headlines? Palin.

According to the governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad: "We've never really had two dynamic women running for president in the Republican caucuses. I think it would be really interesting." Was that a euphemism for something? Is there even room for both?

Unlike Bachmann, Palin has yet to indicate anything definite about a possible run. She's still employed by Fox News, which has swiftly terminated the contracts of other presidential hopefuls – prompting Mike Huckabee, for one, to choose well-paid punditry over a far more nebulous political ambition.

And even though Romney's poll numbers show that he's steadily building quite a commanding lead among potential voters (not to mention a vast war chest of million-buck donations), many Republican luminaries are still searching for that magic someone who can capture the public imagination and heal the fractious divisions between the party establishment and its unruly Tea Party wing.

And if that's not Mr Romney, it sure isn't the Marmite of political candidates, Sarah Palin. Cue the flurry of speculation around the likes of Chris Christie, Rick Perry – even Jeb Bush.

At least the race is finally getting exciting, and not before time.

Felicity Spector is a deputy programme editor for Channel 4 News.