DES MOINES, IOWA | If Sarah Palin goes rogue in the Hawkeye State, will the Tea Party have her back?
That question appeared to be on Palin’s mind Friday in the few minutes that she spent behind closed doors here with state officials before her speech to 1,500 activists and operatives.
“How’s the Tea Party here?” she asked, according to those in the room backstage with her before the speech.
The query gets right to the heart of whether a Palin candidacy might be viable using the same outsider strategy she has utilized in sprinting to the front of the Republican pack so far.
Palin’s modus operandi since the 2008 campaign ended has been to go around the political and media establishment. She has raised money through small donors for the most part rather than courting the wealthy establishment, and has communicated through Facebook, Twitter and Fox News, largely avoiding interviews with journalists.
In Iowa, such a strategy might look like eschewing the traditional route of one-on-one retail politics that many Iowans expect and even demand. The calculated gamble would then be that grassroots support from Tea Party types and from disenchanted independents would overwhelm others who rely on different branches of the state party organization at the straw poll next August and in the January 2012 caucuses.
A prominent Democratic strategist in the state said that if Palin lets all the top political talent in the state get snatched up by others and hopes that her popular appeal will carry the day, she could “get her clock cleaned.”
But one veteran GOP operative already committed to another presidential hopeful said Palin’s star power might very well could be enough to run on.
“She has an immediate leg-up on anyone looking to the Iowa Straw Poll to get a running start on the Iowa Caucuses. She makes it very difficult to break through at the straw poll because of her natural ability to fill a place like Hilton Coliseum,” he said.
Mark McKinnon, a former campaign adviser to President George W. Bush who wrote a piece Sunday arguing that Palin can win the primary, agreed.
“Palin will be a hurricane in Iowa and they’ll all get swept up in the mania,” he said by e-mail.
Palin, he said, could go around the Iowa establishment with ease: “The hotter the water, the stronger the tea. And it’s hot out there.”
However, were Palin to pursue such a strategy, it would be complicated by two things: a Tea Party movement that is smaller than in other states, and a possible lack of excitement about her from some within the Tea Party.
The electorate in the Hawkeye State is not comparable to most states. The number of grassroots activists involved in the political process is larger than in most states, since Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status gives so much clout and incentive to individual voters to participate.
There are roughly 120,000 Iowa Republicans who took part in the 2008 caucuses, according to the state party. That’s out of 645,606 registered Republicans in a state of roughly 3 million people.
NEXT: Iowan Tea Party activists are not happy with Palin
So the question is, as Palin put it, how much of an impact does the Tea Party have in Iowa? Tea Party activists say it is significant.
“I think it’s huge. I have never seen anything like this before,” said Marilea David, a former public school teacher who runs a tutoring business in West Des Moines and said she was a big fan of Palin’s.
There are 29 separate local Tea Party groups in the state on the national Tea Party Patriots website.
Additionally, there is big potential for independents to break Palin’s way, if she can capture them. There are a greater number of independents in Iowa – 755,513 – than Republicans or Democrats. (Democrats have a total of 699,707 registered voters.)
But Palin, by taking a traditional step toward accumulating political goodwill in the state when she endorsed GOP gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad in June, has disenchanted a good number of Tea Party activists in the state.
“A lot of people are disappointed,” said Jim Carley, a Vietnam veteran and retired salesman who is president of Save Our American Republican (SOAR), a group of about 80 people just east of Des Moines that affiliates itself with TPP.
His wife, Kathy, said the same: “I really respected her until she endorsed Terry Branstad. Then I was disappointed in her. I think she was positioning herself politically.”
“I stand behind what she’s doing in trying to help the country go in a more conservative direction, but I’m suspicious of why she’s doing it,” Kathy said.
Cory Adams, a 33-year old printing firm worker Ames, brought up the Branstad endorsement unprompted in a conversation during a break at a SOAR educational seminar in the eastern Des Moines suburbs on Saturday.
“I saw that merely as political expediency. I didn’t see it necessarily as genuine, so I wasn’t thrilled,” said Adams, who caucused for Ron Paul in 2008. “It’s not an automatic disqualifier. I would have to consider her but I’d also look at others.”
One of the more prominent Tea Party activists in the state who did not want to be identified said these sentiments were widespread.
“I haven’t talked to any people that are consistently in the Tea Party, that are involved, that weren’t disappointed with that,” the Tea Party leader said. “She’s definitely going to have to think about who her base is and realize that that was not their favorite thing.”
But state GOP Matt Strawn said he did not think Palin’s endorsement of Branstad had caused “irreparable” harm.
Ann Trimble-Ray, vice chairwoman of the Sac County Republican Party and adviser to Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King, agreed.
“I don’t think Palin’s endorsement of Branstad will be a fatal problem. Branstad will win in November so her endorsement will prove successful,” Trimble-Ray said.
But, she added, Palin does need to trace the humbling path that Iowa voters expect all presidential contenders to walk.
“You can’t win in Iowa without going to the central committee meetings and the community celebrations and the house parties,” Trimble-Ray said “We expect one-on-one interactions with our presidential candidates here.”
Palin’s speech Friday, Trimble-Ray said, was “a great start.”