Flash or stealth. That seems to be the choice among aspirants for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination during this midterm season. While many of the prospective candidates grab headlines and make waves through high-profile endorsements, others quietly work to get fellow Republicans elected and earn credit for service to the party. While the first group gets the attention of newsmakers and journalists, the others won't go unnoticed, say conservative insiders.
Grover Norquist, an influential antitax activist, notes that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has kept a lower profile than possible contenders like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But Norquist says Daniels has been working hard for Republicans running against vulnerable Democrats in Indiana, where victory in the state legislature would ensure GOP control over the redistricting process and thus help the party's prospects in the U.S. House. "You definitely see Mitch Daniels starting to raise his profile, but not in a way that is getting tied to candidates" outside his state who might prove controversial in a general election campaign two years from now, says Erik Telford, a strategist with the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. "There's baggage that could come up later."
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Also tending to matters in his home state is former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Although considered a long shot for a presidential bid, Santorum may get notice from party insiders if he helps the GOP win in Senate and House races, Norquist says.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has begun to outshine the candidates he is supporting. Elected in 2009, the pugnacious governor has quickly gained popularity, especially after several memorable moments at town hall meetings became video hits on the Internet. Though he's strongly denied that he has any interest in running for the 2012 presidential nomination, he did raise eyebrows with a recent trip to Iowa—the starting point for the presidential primary campaign.
Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, has wielded influence by supporting or opposing Republican candidates in the primaries and is using her political action committee to help Republicans in general election campaigns. Her role as a conservative kingmaker has infuriated some GOP insiders, but Norquist says most of the candidates she has supported are doing well against Democratic opponents. As for her GOP doubters, Telford notes that "Palin has never had a very powerful image with the party establishment. I think she's always drawn on the support of the nonestablishment, rank-and-file grass roots."
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who has flirted with presidential runs in the past, is looking again at the possibility. The author of the 1994 "Contract With America" has taken a vocal stance, most recently advising 2010 candidates to brand the Democrats as the "party of food stamps," claiming that Democratic policies promote welfare dependency, not jobs. Norquist says Gingrich's high public profile is a plus, but that his stand against a Muslim cultural center near ground zero in Manhattan may have hurt him among moderates and religious minorities.