For 2012, Sarah Palin's Time May Have Run Out

Sarah Palin either wants to run for president or be a kingmaker, but the clock is ticking for both.

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The conventional wisdom in Washington regarding Sarah Palin and the 2012 GOP presidential primary has more or less gelled—she's not running. The pugnacious and polarizing former Alaska governor has waited too long, missed too many important deadlines, and just doesn't seem ready for the rigors of the campaign trail, the thinking goes. In her absence, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have soaked up much of the grass-roots conservative excitement which Palin would need to mount a serious run in the GOP primary. Her antics have alienated too many Republican bigwigs, and she hasn't made any effort to rebuild the burnt bridges.

[See photos of Palin's recent bus tour.]

But, clearly, Palin also operates in a world where the usual rules of politics don't always apply. Everything about Palin is unpredictable, including her intensely personal and cultural style of politics, her embrace of celebrity through big media events and reality shows, and her close-knit circle of advisers removed from the D.C. professional operative class. For that reason, most political observers are also reluctant to write her off, especially as she continues to make appearances in key states. On Saturday, she is scheduled to speak at an Iowa event sponsored by the Tea Party of America, and on Monday she is scheduled to speak at a rally for the Tea Party Express in New Hampshire..

But for all her flouting of conventional wisdom and the norms of politics, conventional wisdom seems to have won: While she may be able to keep the Sarah Palin brand in the spotlight, she may have missed her chance to be a major force in the 2012 GOP primary, either as a candidate or as an endorser.

[See cartoons of the 2012 GOP contenders]

The circumstances of the Iowa event illustrate why she would have a tough time winning in the state. Palin dropped out earlier this week, only to re-commit to the event, reportedly after the organizers made changes her consultants had requested. Conservative activists grumbled that the confusion was typical for her organization and shows a lack of serious planning, which is critical to winning the Iowa Caucuses. More than primary elections, caucuses require sophisticated, grass-roots campaign organizations to make sure that supporters can navigate the complicated, and exhausting, voting process. "She doesn't have a huge staff," says Justin Holmes, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. "She gets some attention when she comes through, obviously, but that's not necessarily the same thing as having boots on the ground and an army of volunteers."

Likewise, in New Hampshire, her style may alienate an electorate which is used to decades of door-to-door, personal campaigning. "If she were to run, hypothetically, she's going to run into he same problems here that Bachmann has run into," says Dean Spiliotes, a professor at Southern New Hampshire University and commentator on statewide politics. "Her game is to maximize her influence, and she does that by hitting on these big ticket, high media events. She's shown no interest in doing the type of retail politics you need to do to run here."

[See political cartoons about Palin.]

But if she's not running, Palin certainly wants to be someone who can influence the candidates, either by picking the winner or moving the contenders to the right. It's a role that she has relished in the past. In 2010 congressional and state elections, for better or worse she helped shape the GOP's field through primary endorsements. Some of the candidates she endorsed, such as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, went on to win their races and become political stars in their own right. Others, such as Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, floundered, and left party operatives seething with Palin's interference. But Palin's tentative toe-dipping in the presidential race, and her reluctance to make a decision about it either way, may have put off many of the politically conscious voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. "I don't think [New Hampshire voters] would feel compelled to follow her lead," Spiliotes says.