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Sarah Palin dons her running shoes, sort of starts long...

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Sarah Palin dons her running shoes, sort of starts long walk towards the White House

These days, presidential campaigns start not months, but years, before the elections. Sarah Palin has been playing coy until now regarding the 2012 race, but an interview with Fox News, and a speech she gave at the Ronald Reagan Dinner in Iowa, have revealed her intentions. She’ll run – if the American people think she’s the one, and if it’s best for her family and the country. Yeah, right. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Back in the old days, in a moment of sudden clarity at 3.00am, your standard, garden variety American politician would begin to think he too was worthy of inheriting Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt’s mantles, dreaming he too could become America’s next president. Or a politician would hear the siren call from canny political veterans who now agreed our politician had to run for president to ward off the eccentricities (or worse) of yet another potential candidate. Or, this politician would hear the shouting from an angry electorate whose gorge had risen over the rascals and thieves already in power and felt now it was time for a real change.

This used to happen through a trail of smoke-filled rooms and just a couple of primary elections – leading up to the party conventions and then the actual presidential campaign. Now, of course, with primary elections in more than 40 states and those near-anarchic caucuses in the rest, the jostling, pushing and shoving among candidates and their supporters starts really early, even before this year’s mid-term election has even happened. And so, the would-be, possible, potential Republican candidates are already coming and going in Iowa – the state that will host the first caucus selection for the 2012 race.

Thus, it should be no surprise that Sarah Palin has just been to Des Moines to give the keynote speech at Iowa’s annual Republican Party-organised, Ronald Reagan Dinner. She probably delivered the best joke of the current political season, so far, when she told her audience that she recently found she had few free hours in Iowa. She was sitting in her hotel room, and as she started to put on her running shoes and a hat and was about to go for a good run, her husband warned her not to do it. In her telling of it, her husband, Todd, told her: “I guarantee if anyone spots you in tennis shoes, the headline is going to be in Vanity Fair. They’re going to say: ‘Palin in Iowa, decides to run.’”

Anyway, Palin got her audience’s attention as she took on the two ton elephant sitting in the back of the room, even as she managed to elide around whether she actually was going to run for the presidency – two years from now. This “will she, won’t she” dance is happening even as she has been endorsing a slew of like-minded candidates in Republican primaries across the country, many of whom have won their nominations and most of whom also have Tea Party movement support. And, of course, she’s piled up a slew of political debts that can be repaid in two years’ time.

Actually, Palin’s already had a pretty good run this year. In addition to her success with her preferred candidates, she’s also made a pile of loot with her memoir, Going Rogue, as well as from her deal with Fox TV News – all without having a real day job.

Watch: Sarah Palin at Sarah Palin at Iowa GOP Reagan Dinner (Part one).

Nonetheless, Palin has yet go through all the usual hoops candidates are wont to do in Iowa in what is now a long, long lead-up to the caucus scrums. This time around, besides her Reagan Day dinner, Palin had no rallies, carefully scheduled impromptu campaign stops, or “grip and greet” meetings with party activists and candidates. And she actually did go for a run (as in, with running shoes) instead.

This may have been a brilliant tease or a tactical blunder. As a result of their experiences with their caucus process that has been taking place at the beginning of recent presidential election campaigns, Iowa audiences have become well-trained to evaluate candidates through these caucuses. Political activists now look forward for chances to peer into a candidate’s eyes to judge whether or not they would make a good president.

At this point, there are already 10 other potential Republican candidates who are making increasingly frequent visits to Iowa. None of them, of course, has yet taken the step Democrat John Edwards did for the 2008 election. Edwards simply bought a house and moved to Iowa for much of the early part of the campaign. Of course it didn’t help him much in the end, but then he had those other problems.

Iowa Republican politicos are already telling the press that Sarah Palin needs to decide if she is running or not so there can be a proper horse race. The New York Times quoted some activists who said, “One speech is not enough to make a run in Iowa,” and “We pay attention to the candidates and ask very tough questions when we meet with them.”

In her speech, Palin took on Karl Rove, the Republican strategist who has just caused a storm in the Republican teacup by calling out some of the weirder candidates like Christine O’Donnell for having really nutty ideas. Palin told Rove and everyone else to come on board for the party’s run in November 2010. Republicans, of course, put extraordinary value on party loyalty and closing ranks, and are generally oblivious to a candidate’s views on safe sex, social security, the gold standard – almost everything except President Barack Obama’s health plan. That’s a 100% no-no.

Well, okay, not every politician is following this storyline. Over in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg (the Democrat turned Republican turned independent) has a list of candidates he is endorsing on the basis of their adultness – regardless of party – and he says he is going to campaign for them. Okay, he’s not really a Republican anymore but he still has lots of followers in the political centre. Bloomberg’s own version of the loyalty test is to help candidates who he says aren’t prisoners of rigid ideology and actually understand the concept of political compromise. Now this is obviously not the way to get the Republican nomination for the presidency, but his increased national visibility is beginning to fuel speculation that Bloomberg has started to hear that 3.00 am voice as well.

And as for Sarah Palin, well, she’s clearly getting better and better with the tease of the half-opened door. In an interview with Fox News she said: “If the American people were to be ready for someone who is willing to shake it up, and willing to get back to time-tested truths, and help lead our country towards a more prosperous and safe future and if they happen to think I was the one, if it were best for my family and for our country, of course I would give it a shot.”

But then, as she finished her speech at the dinner in Des Moines, she told reporters: “I know that you can make a big difference in America without even having a title.” And then she told some autograph seekers as she signed her name for them: “I want to get back to Iowa soon.” And then it was off to the airport. But, like one of Arnie’s film characters, she’ll be back – in Iowa, that is.

For years, from 1960 to 1972, Theodore H White was the master chronicler of this quadrennial saga. White honed a reputation as the reporter who would doggedly and faithfully record what had happened – and, more importantly – why and how it had worked out the way it did. His books would begin by describing candidates and their entourages of just a handful of supporters as they trudged around in New Hampshire’s harsh New England winters, the home of the first primary election. The primary schedule was limited – fewer than a dozen states really had primaries back then – and each of them was a virtually self-contained political or moral test.

New Hampshire would demonstrate a candidate had the requisite fire in his belly, West Virginia would measure if the candidate could reach out to people very different to himself (a Catholic Kennedy in staunchly protestant West Virginia), and then it was on to primaries in California or New York, big states that were the mother lode of convention delegates. Next would be the conventions with the deals coming from those actual smoke-filled rooms, and finally the general election campaign.

Photo: The New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

Things have changed since Teddy White’s golden age of reportage and politics, however. In the wake of the civil rights revolution, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the consequent collapse of automatic trust in leaders and institutions, the people’s increasingly direct involvement in picking presidential candidates has now generated a marathon across the entire nation for more than 40 primaries, plus the caucuses.

The first primary is still New Hampshire’s – by state law it will always be first – but the Granite State’s honours are now shared with a presidential delegate selection caucus that takes place early on in Iowa. That means the first two defining moments of a US presidential contest are in the hands of 1.5% of the country’s population – and in two states that are decidedly rural and small town and certainly inhabited by fewer minority citizens than almost any of the other states, except perhaps for North Dakota or Wyoming.

And so, the American presidential race now begins every four years in coffee shops, school gyms, church multi-purpose rooms, lounges and town halls in more than a hundred small towns and cities across Iowa (and New Hampshire). A would-be candidate speaks to people in small groups, trying out his (or her) take on issues, trying to differentiate oneself from all the other possible candidates – and trying to find that intangible but real connection that resonates with voters.

More recently still, something else has been added to the mix and that is the near obsessive attention on the primary and caucus process from all media: news television, internet newspapers and news services, bloggers – and now social networking. And so, news and politics junkies have begun spending serious time on the American presidential selection for 2012 – even before the 2010 midterm election has fairly run its course.

As a result, the earliest prelims in the 2012 Iowa caucus season are already under way, in tandem with activist conclaves like the just-concluded Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC. This summit brought together 2,000 conservative activists from across the country to listen to their version of the siren calls – or the dog whistles, depending on one’s view of things. At this particular meeting, attendees came up with what they say is their dream ticket for 2012 – it has former Alaska governor Sarah Palin for president and the very conservative Indiana Republican congressman, Mike Pence, as her running mate. 

Over the weekend, this reporter heard a foreign journalist on an international news channel give voice to what might happen if Obama is not re-nominated. In this scenario, Hillary Clinton gets her chance, finally, to make her run for the presidency and she runs against Sarah Palin…. Now that would be one heckuva campaign, wouldn’t it? DM

For more, read the New York Times, the New York Times, the New York Times, CBS, Fox TV News, the BBC and Politico. For more on Michael Bloomberg, read the New York Times. For more on Theodore H. White, try Wikipedia, the Librarything, NYU Journalism and The New York Review of Books’ review by I F Stone one of White’s Making of the President series.

Photo: Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin is seen in the stands of the 142nd Belmont Stakes, the final leg of racing’s Triple Crown, at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York June 5, 2010. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi


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