By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
The special election race taking place in upstate New York has been described variably as a GOP civil war and a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. To the extent that those assertions are true (and they are, as I argue in my column), it may also be an early chance to see the contours of the 2012 presidential race. In one corner you've got Sarah "Going Rogue" Palin who has, of course, bucked the Republican establishment and endorsed Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate who seems poised to finish ahead of official GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava. No surprise there: Palin is aiming to inherit John McCain's "maverick" mantle—but as a conservative maverick (No compromises!), rather than as a centrist maverick like McCain (Let's make deals on climate change, campaign finance reform, etc).
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is also in Hoffman's corner, saying, according to the Post's Chris Cillizza, that "we cannot send more politicians to Washington who wear the Republican jersey on the campaign trail but then vote like Democrats in Congress." This may be an early signal that Pawlenty plans to position himself in the same true-red conservative space as Palin, presumably arguing that he can be more appealing in a general election.
Newt Gingrich has put himself into Scozzafava's corner, one of the few high profile GOPers outside of the House leadership to do so. He has argued that conservatives who demand total philosophical fidelity from candidates can expect to remain in a minority party. He could well be angling to be the GOP establishment candidate. He could appeal to pragmatic Republican poobahs scared by the fire-breathing conservatives—all with an eye toward the Obama lesson, that people like bi- or post-partisan rhetoric. That what appeals to the party's base won't necessarily go over well with the rest of the country.
Then you have Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Huckabee, perhaps surprisingly, has declined to make an endorsement in the race, though he has sung Hoffman's praises while saying he could never support a Republican candidate who, like Scozzafava, favors abortion rights. Huckabee was the conservative insurgent candidate last year. It may be that he sees little to gain by endorsing Hoffman (the base already loves him) while realizing that he could irk an establishment he presumably must court in order to win. (BTW, a new CNN poll has Huckabee leading among possible contenders.)
Then there's Romney, who has completely avoided the race. While Huckabee may have given a wink-and-nod to Hoffman, the liberal/conservative former governor of Massachusetts has not said a word and, according to Cillizza again, doesn't plan to. As the runner up in 2008, he is a presumed front-runner for 2012, so it may be that he hopes to stay above intra-party squabbles to the extent possible.