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19 September 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 5:41am

The prospect of Palin power

Can the Democrats be shocked into action?

By Felicity Spector

So Sarah Palin — in the words of the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs — is “going to dip that toe” in the water of the presidential race. As if we hadn’t guessed already.

Friday’s speech was heavy on the symbolism — this was, after all, Iowa, site of the first presidential caucuses — at a time when Palin’s own brand of conservatism is sending shock waves through the Republican Party.

There was an appeal for party unity, and a dig at establishment critics like Karl Rove, whom Palin urged to come and see Iowa for himself: “where he will see the light and realise that these are just the normal, hardworking, patriot Americans who are saying, ‘No, enough is enough.’ ” This after Rove had criticised the latest darling of the Tea Party, Delaware’s surprise Republican primary winner, Christine O’Donnell, quipping: “There are a lot of nutty things she has been saying that don’t add up.”

But, heading towards November’s midterms, Rove is not the only Republican worried that the inexorable rise of Tea Party candidates could jepoardise the GOP’s hopes of wiping out the Democratic majorities in Congress. He has already written off the prospect of winning Delaware.

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And Alaska’s incumbent senator Lisa Murkowski has just launched a “write in” campaign to put herself on the November ballot — after her primary defeat upset at the hands of the right.

Naturally, there are plenty who think the conservative ascendency is just what the party needs, not least the assembled faithful at this weekend’s Values Voters summit in Washington, DC. It was a motley crew of Christian conservatives, anti-abortionists and folks opposed to same-sex marriage.

The meeting’s star turn was, of course, O’Donnell herself, wowing the crowd with lines like this: “We’re not trying to take back our country. We ARE our country.”

The South Carolina senator Jim DeMint got a rock-star reception of his own as he predicted the right would win big. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, he explained his thinking:

For years, conservatives have been told that the only way to create a big-tent party was to support big-government candidates who were “electable”, rather than principled. History suggests otherwise. Majorities are built on principles, not the other way around.

So much for trying to secure the independent vote, then. DeMint went on, “I’m praying for an earthquake election in November that will shake Washington to its core. I’m doing all I can to make it happen.”

Where all this does resonate is at the grass roots, and the Republican base. Reports say O’Donnell raised $1ms online in a single day last week — no mean achievement.

Some Democrats see it as a much-needed gift. Despite the palpable lack of enthusiasm for Barack Obama, they think the prospect of Palin and O’Donnell in power could be just the big bad right-wing wolf the Dems need to tempt disillusioned supporters back out.

The trend, or so the polls suggest, shows that key groups such as women, African Americans and young people will choose to stay home this fall. Will they be motivated by fear? Or can the Democrats recapture that elusive hope and inspiration of the 2008 campaign?

Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart has already revealed his plans for a pre-election “Rally to Restore Sanity” — or, as he’s dubbed it, the Million Moderate March — at the end of October. Up against it, a rival Stephen Colbert “March to Keep Fear Alive”.

This is more like it, a little light relief from all the wars and economic gloom. Liberals of the world, unite — and don’t forget to smile. You have nothing to lose but your defeatism.

Felicity Spector is chief writer and American politics expert for Channel 4 News.