Sarah Palin’s hold on the Republican party

Even her potential rivals don’t know what to say about her

With President Obama’s approval ratings once again cracking the 50 per cent mark, it is interesting to see how a newly emboldened Republican party will deal with its next big quest, the presidency. Ousting the controversial Michael Steele as RNC president was the first step in that process. Establishing its authority in the new Congress will be next.

With the presidential candidate primaries just a year away, Obama is already putting together his campaign team. His inner circle has been revamped significantly with the arrival of a new chief of staff and a new national economic advisor. Obama clearly has his eye on 2012.

On the Republican side, the arrival of the Tea Party is unsettling the terrain. An improving economy and the voters’ desire for more bipartisanship politics is further complicating the political calculation for prospective candidates. The tragic shootings in Tucson less than two weeks ago may not ultimately result in major change, but it is affecting the political discourse and the nature of political debate.

The field of potential Republican candidates includes high-profile personalities who have published books and intervened regularly on everyday issues; there’s even a reality TV star. Yet, no one seems to be on the verge of declaring despite their relative notoriety. Palin, coming off a tough week—some would say a bad week—is in the public eye as much as ever. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has just launched a book tour. Governor Mitt Romney is on a foreign policy tour. Others like Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee have played coy in recent weeks, while Governor Haley Barbour has not yet gotten his footing due to some controversial remarks, and both New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels claim no interest in running in 2012.

The biggest factor for the GOP, though, is the silencing effect Palin is having on the Republican race. She is not a conventional politician. The current controversy about her remarks surrounding the Tucson tragedy shows her to be unpredictable, yet highly vocal and persistent in defending herself. She is clearly appealing to her base. There appears to be an emerging consensus among backroom establishment Republicans that a Palin nomination may not be their best hope for 2012, with Pawlenty, Gingrich, Huckabee, and Christie expressing mild criticisms of late. But so far, even Palin’s most vocal rivals seem at a loss in figuring out how to deal with her.