If the Republican nomination in 2012 shapes up as a two-way race between former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and 2008 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, expect fireworks to fly.
Last week, GOP primary voters caught a glimpse of how things might play out between the two Republican heavyweights when anonymous aides from both camps exchanged pointedly personal barbs.
The scuffle began when Time magazine’s Mark Halperin anonymously quoted one Romney aide in a column last Thursday, blasting Palin for her lack of substance, “She’s not a serious human being.”
Another aide to the former Massachusetts governor ripped into Palin, arguing, “If she’s standing up there in a debate and the answers are more than 15 seconds long, she’s in trouble.”
In an effort to flank the chief Mama Grizzly, a Palin intimate quickly responded, telling Politico, anonymously of course, “She’s not a finger-in-the-wind kind of leader. She[s] supporting candidates who share her common sense values,” an obvious slight at Romney’s conversions on key issues in recent years.
In Palin-esque fashion, Romney took to the Twitter universe to quell the flames, labeling the anonymous aides as “numbskulls,” and proclaiming that Palin had “proven her smarts.”
With the kind of buttoned-up, disciplined political operation Romney runs, it seems implausible to think such attacks on Palin were not part of a coordinated strategy, one in which Romney green lighted himself.
A trial balloon for how he and his inner-circle may go about undermining Palin in the months ahead. A good cop-bad cop routine permitting those around him to play dirty while he keeps his nose clean. It’s an eerily reminiscent tactic that was used to great effect by top operatives within the McCain campaign, who through a slow drip of media leaks portrayed Palin as a combustible diva.
Regardless of how planned the jabs were, Romney’s aides stated publicly what many Republican establishment types have been thinking privately: that Palin as the GOP standard bearer in 2012 would be a disaster of the first order and make Barry Goldwater’s 1964 landslide loss look like a walk through Central Park.
Still, for all of her flaws and baggage, higher ups within the GOP consider Palin a legitimate threat to win the party nomination. No other Republican commands the kind of loyalty and bedrock support amongst the party faithful that she does. And in a primary filled with dull suits, Palin’s electric presence, accompanied by her litany of red-meat bombshells, could galvanize GOP primary voters in a way that no other candidate could.
As the current field stands, Romney remains the most viable alternative to Palin. His runner-up finish in 2008 has given him front-runner status for 2012. His impressive political operation, which features a high fundraising capacity and a hefty personal bank account, make him the candidate most ready to pursue a presidential run at a moment’s notice. And by all signals, he has given up the pointless pursuit of trying to be the darling of social conservatives and returned to emphasizing his strengths as a turn around artist in both the private and public sector.
But Romney has his share of weighty liabilities too. Perceptions of him as a chronic panderer never went away in 2008 and questions regarding the sincerity of his conservatism still linger today. He’s been called more robotic than authentic, and his past life as a corporate big shot may not sit well with a Tea Party crowd who holds the bailout of the banks as the grand and final betrayal of Big Government Republicans. Oh, and wait until his primary opponent’s begin running ads comparing his Massachusetts health care plan with that of president Obama’s. It could have a devastating effect on his candidacy.
One of the more intriguing aspects of a potential showdown between Romney and Palin would be the cut across cultural and ideological lines.
Culturally, the National Journal’s Ron Brownstein has explained this as the divide between “wine track” and “beer track” Republicans, a comparison between Republicans who are college-educated and economically wealthy, the wine trackers, and the more blue-collar, working class, the beer trackers. As Brownstein notes, the former would be more predisposed to Romney while the latter would likely flock to Palin.
Ideologically, Romney’s candidacy would garner the support of the prototypical northeastern, moderate Republican, a group more open to a campaign embedded in political pragmatism rather than ideological crusade. Palin’s candidacy would attract those who favor a wholesale and voluminous rejection of the Obama agenda, decrying any hint of bipartisan squeamishness.
As the political calendar inches closer towards 2012, Romney and Palin may quickly become more foes than friends.
Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate, who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.