Palin, Speed-Dating the Right, Won’t Commit: Margaret Carlson

Forget the jokes about Sarah Palin being a palm reader. To her followers, the scribbled notes on her hand -- there, seemingly, to remind her of her main talking points -- is not at all like a sophomore cheating on a history final.

To them, it’s one more endearing quirk. Presidents use teleprompters. Real leaders make do with what they have.

After she brought down the house at the first convention of the Tea Party and told Chris Wallace on Fox News she is considering running for president, there is no denying the force of Palin -- and not just in the tea-party movement.

She’s a force and a hazard in the GOP. Many in the Republican establishment see her as they did the leaders of the Christian Right -- as folks to be used but, like Pat Robertson, laughed at for their aspirations to higher office. Palin doesn’t see herself that way.

It’s no shock that Palin is the darling of the tea parties. That’s like skiers loving snow. She’s a vessel of focus-group grievances.

What is shocking is that she’s not going to be limited by the tea partiers. While happy to accept their love -- albeit for a hefty fee -- she has no intention of being monogamous. She’s already moved beyond it.

As part of her cross-country dating, she is endorsing some Republicans running against conservative tea-party candidates.

Tea in Texas

In the race for the Republican nomination for Texas governor, the tea-party candidate, Debra Medina, a nurse turned businesswoman polling at 24 percent in a three-way race, is the perfect Palin fare, the pure conservative going after a toxic establishment incumbent.

You’d think Palin would be all over Medina, trying to reprise for the tea-party movement the special congressional election in New York last fall, when she helped force out the establishment Republican in favor of an arch-conservative. Palin’s pick in that contest went on to lose to the Democrat, but among believers, it was just as important to be right as to win.

Instead, in Texas, Palin endorsed the incumbent governor, Rick Perry. Since Palin weighed in, Perry has surged ahead of his other primary challenger, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the favorite of the Bush family who narrowly led Perry in polling last fall.

Professional Rally

On Sunday, Palin headlined the largest rally of the Perry campaign. Fresh from her tea-party triumph at Opryland, Palin spoke to a blissful crowd pumped up by patriotic music by Ted Nugent, confetti guns and signs so professionally done it would make a tea partier choke.

To keep her insurgent street-cred going, Palin made sure to feed some longhorn red meat to the crowd, mentioning to wild cheers the notion of the Lone Star State “seceding from the union.”

A Palin endorsement is akin to Warren Buffett saying it’s time to buy. Until Palin indicated her support, Senator John McCain looked vulnerable to tea-party activism in his primary. Of course, there’s loyalty there. She had to stand by her man after he stood with her against his presidential campaign staff when they admitted, after the game was over, that Palin was not fit to be vice president.

Still, her siding with McCain, who’s been in the Capitol almost three decades, was another setback to the tea party’s efforts against incumbents who’ve been too long in power, especially Washington power.

Polls Change

Former congressman turned conservative radio talk-show host J.D. Hayworth was leading McCain last fall, when more than 60 percent of Arizona Republicans said McCain was out of touch with his base and almost 70 percent of Arizonans had a favorable view of Hayworth. Since Palin disclosed plans last month to stump for McCain, his favorable ratings are up, Hayworth’s are down, and McCain has surged, with one poll giving him a 22-point lead.

It’s not all due to Palin, of course. Maverick no more, McCain has moved sharply rightward. He uttered hardly a peep when the Supreme Court shot down his pet cause, campaign finance reform. He was for abolishing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military until last week, when he came out against it.

This week, tea became the official drink of the South Carolina GOP, which furthers Palin’s goal of mating at least some segments of the establishment with the outliers.

There’s a risk for Palin in making too nice with the establishment, however.

Ins and Outs

She is a candidate sharpest when she is running against more than just an incumbent president but against all of the ins in favor of the outs -- against party regulars, hired handlers, vegans, secularists, most pointy-heads east of the Mississippi and everyone who watches David Letterman.

Like all populists, she’s great on the stump, with her particular mix of Alaska frontierswoman and Valley-Girl-with- tanning-bed. But unlike most populists, she’s not faking the absence of book learning. William Jennings Bryan could have reeled off all the Founding Fathers, what papers he read and his priorities without a teleprompter. Or crib notes.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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