Perhaps the least known aspect about Sarah Palin’s relationship with the Tea Party is that though almost all in the movement love her and support her, many of them simultaneously have serious reservations about whether they want her to run for president.
Interviews over the last few months with numerous Tea Party and conservative voters in states around the country yielded no one who was enthusiastic about Palin running for president, though a handful said they were open to it. In addition, conservative and Tea Party leaders who are speaking to the grassroots regularly report that they have consistently heard the same thing.
Palin is currently ascendant in many respects. The eight-part reality show on TLC starring her and her family aired on Sunday and drew 5 million viewers, a record for a premier on that channel. With her daughter’s string of appearances on “Dancing with the Stars,” Palin’s celebrity star has not shined brighter since the heat of the 2008 campaign. And much of the attention now is soft media, far more positive than the stretch of brutal press that Palin endured during the 2008 campaign as John McCain’s vice presidential candidate.
In addition, the Republican crop of candidates to challenge Obama in 2012 remains unsatisfying to most conservatives. No one person combines star power and charisma with intellectual heft, policy expertise and political courage to stand for things the right most wants to see.
Recent polling on the Republican field by Public Policy Polling showed Palin leading the pack of 2012 GOP candidates in six states, while Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was ahead in six other states. Palin led in Texas, Ohio, West Virginia, Maine, Wisconsin and Washington. Romney was ahead in New Hampshire, California, Florida, Colorado, Connecticut and Nevada.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee led in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kentucky and Alaska, Palin’s home state. But tellingly, the most respondents in all 18 states, 19.6 percent, said they want someone else or were undecided.
A Gallup poll released Tuesday showed Palin with 16 percent support in the GOP primary, tied for second with Huckabee behind only Romney, who had 19 percent.
Palin, therefore, has to be considered a leading contender for the nomination judging solely by the polls. Many in the GOP establishment who do not want to see her become the party’s nominee are dismayed that no strong alternative has yet become apparent.
But there are signs that even though Palin enjoys broad support throughout the conservative movement, that enthusiasm does not extend to nominating her to run against President Obama.
A PPP poll in September found that while Palin is the most popular of all the potential 2012 Republican candidates, with 66 percent personal approval, only 24 percent of that 66 percent think she should be president.
Interviews over the last few months with Tea Party conservatives – who spoke with TheDC at rallies, organizing events in and outside of Washington, and over phone and e-mail – have hit upon the same thing time and time again. Many in the grassroots think Palin is an outstanding spokesperson for Americans who do not feel like they have power or a voice and are dismayed at the direction the country is going in. They revel in her anti-establishment, anti-elite attitude, and cheer her on as she mocks and criticizes the Washington political class.
But their enthusiasm often falters when it comes to 2012.
“I like Palin,” said Alan Reasin, a 65-year old retired nuclear power plant engineer from Conowingo, Md, holding a large “Don’t Tread on Me” flag outside the U.S. Capitol Monday at a small rally featuring Tea Party favorites Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, and Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican.
But Reasin, who is on the steering committee of the Cecil County Tea Party Patriots, said he thought Gen. David Petraeus, the decorated military official who commands U.S. forces in Afghanistan, should run for president.
As for Palin, Reasin said, “She’s got too many negatives, not for me, but for too many people. So I think she’s better off on the outside looking in.”
Reasin’s comments point to a growing recognition that while Palin is intensely loved by her supporters, she is strongly disliked by a larger percentage of Americans. The most recent poll to demonstrate this, a Politico/Penn Schoen Berland survey released Tuesday, showed 36 percent who view her favorably and 53 percent who view her unfavorably.
Brenda Tackett, a white-haired retiree from Bristol, Tennessee, traveled to the rally Monday with 29 others on a bus paid for by Americans for Prosperity, a Washington-based conservative group. She held a hand-painted sign that read, “Listen to the People.”
Tackett said Palin might make a good vice president.
“She’s a very smart lady, a very good speaker, but being a woman I think they’ll be after her tooth and nail,” Tackett said. “I don’t think she would hold the main ticket … I think it’s going to take someone a little more powerful than Sarah, that has more connections, that will be able to carry the country with more supporters.”
At the Glenn Beck rally on the National Mall in August, some of the most committed attendees who traveled thousands of miles and slept overnight to get spots up front said similar things.
Katherine McArthur, a 58-year old retired real estate agent and mother of two from Newport Beach, Calif., flew to Washington for the Beck rally and showed up 48 hours early, sleeping two nights on the Mall with nothing more than a camping chair.
“I guess I don’t have confidence in her, at this point in her career,” McArthur said of Palin.
Her friend, Linda Lumsden, a 58-year old skincare specialist also from Newport Beach, was more forceful in her opinion.
“I would like to see someone else emerge. I think she’s too divisive,” Lumsden said. “It’s good for her to be part of the party. I have nothing against her. But I just think a leader has to be more articulate than she is. I just don’t think that person’s emerged yet.”
Adam Washburn, a 47-year old plumber from Oceanside, Calif., also slept on the Mall overnight in a camping chair to save his spot up front at the Beck rally.
“I could support Sarah Palin, but I don’t think she is the one. VP yes, president not so much,” Washburn said in an e-mail this week. “Unfortunately I think the media beat her up too much, and I think she can be more valuable doing other things for the conservative movement.”
“I’m not sure if we have seen the one who needs to run. It has to be someone who can articulate the conservative message like a Buckley or Reagan,” Washburn said. “We have time to find someone. I do like Chris Christie, and Marco Rubio.”
Kathy Gross, a small business owner in her early 50’s from Bowling Green, Ohio, said she does think Palin is qualified to be president. But Gross, a mother of three, grandmother of five who loves to take rides with her husband on their Harley Davidson motorcycle, had concerns about Palin’s ability to withstand the pressures of the office based on her gender.
“I don’t know that a woman is strong enough to deal with all the men in Washington. I don’t know if any woman is,” said Gross, who spoke to TheDC by phone this week after first being interviewed in August at the Beck rally in Washington.
“Probably nobody else in the world thinks like me on that. But I don’t know. I’m not a women’s libber,” Gross said. “So to me, women that strive to do stuff like that is really cool. But it’s not me. I do like what she says. I like how strong she seems. As far as whether she can hold up against Washington, I don’t know.”
In Iowa, interviews with Tea Party grassroots activists in September – when Palin traveled there to speak to at a fundraiser – also found enthusiasm about Palin that did not necessarily extend to supporting her for president.
“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,” said Kathy Carley, who organizes a Tea Party group in West Des Moines with her husband Jim.
In Carley’s case, though she said she “respects and admires” Palin, she said she was “disappointed” by one of Palin’s few conventional political moves: her endorsement of Iowa’s governor-elect, Jim Branstad, a Republican who is considered insufficiently conservative by many in the grassroots.
“I really respected her until she endorsed Terry Branstad,” Carley said. “I think she was positioning herself politically.”
Jim Carley, her husband, chimed in: “A lot of Iowans feel that way. She took a big nosedive.”
Ann Trimble-Ray, an Iowa Republican activist who works for Republican Rep. Steve King, a congressman who represents all of west Iowa, said that “certainly Sarah Palin would fit in front-runner status at this point.”
But, said Trimble-Ray, “I can’t say I’ve heard anyone say they believe she will be the nominee. I do know they want her to be part of the mix.”
Ryan Rhodes, chairman of the Iowa Tea Party Patriots, said that if the Iowa caucuses were held today, Huckabee would win. Palin, he said, has strong support and would come in second to Huckabee. But he also said many in the grassroots are unsure about the former Alaska governor, based on her performance in the 2008 election.
“She would have to do a little bit more than others as to what she was going to do when in office,” Rhodes said. “She would have to lay out a more detailed plan than other people … Some of that has to do with the previous experience.”
A national Tea Party organizer who talks to activists around the country said he sees the same dynamic everywhere when it comes to Palin.
“Lot’s love her on a personal level, and as a conservative icon, but I haven’t heard widespread support for her as a presidential candidate,” he said. “I think the candidates who will be on top in 2012 have yet to really emerge from the pack … Folks have interest in Mike Pence and of course [Sen. Jim] DeMint. I would guess that if asked, DeMint would be the top choice of Tea Party folks right now. He’s fighting the establishment from inside, and I think that will be a plus in 2012.”
Bob MacGuffie, a libertarian-leaning Republican activist involved in the Connecticut Tea Party movement, said that Palin “is a fantastic organizer for the conservative movement — she is pitch perfect on the stump.”
“I would hope she keeps doing that through the 2012 cycle. There are other, better positioned, more qualified candidates the Republican Party could nominate,” MacGuffie said.
One significant conservative leader who travels the country frequently and speaks with grassroots activists frequently said that he does not see Palin as their choice in 2012.
“I think people love to hear her speak and love that she’s out there stirring the waters and challenging the status quo,” the conservative leader said, asking that his name not be used. “But I don’t get the sense that they’re ready to say, ‘She’s the one we want to see as president.'”
“You would think if people were going to coalesce around her that would be happening. And quite frankly I don’t see it,” he said.
A Palin spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.