Sen. Olympia Snowe is litmus test for Republican 2012 presidential candidates

Their topic was Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe (R).  Let’s set the stage.

Over her three terms, Snowe has forged a moderate record. In 2009, she was the 42nd most conservative member of the Senate, based on key votes on economic and social issues, and Snowe has shown centrism on other counts. For example, even though she is pro-choice, she voted to confirm pro-life Supreme Court nominees Samuel Alito and John Roberts.

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Last year, right-of-center bloggers named Snowe the Republican politician they “least liked.” Conservative grassroots leader and Red State blogger Erick Erickson spoke for many in the movement when he wrote Snowe had “sold out the country” after an important vote on healthcare.

It’s not surprising, then, that conservatives consider Snowe a prime target to knock off in the 2012 Republican Senate primary. 

Last month, the National Review’s Brian Bolduc reported that a prominent member of the Maine Tea Party movement is planning on mounting a serious challenge to Snowe.

And there’s more than anecdotal evidence that she is in trouble. An October Public Policy Poll found that 63 percent of Republicans in her state want to nominate a more conservative alternative.

While Christine O’Donnell and Mike Castle’s Republican primary in Delaware pitted some conservative politicians against establishment figures, Maine has the chance of becoming a much more explosive phenomenon. 

GOP presidential candidates may be asked to choose between a sitting senator of their party who would likely be a lock for retaining the seat or a Tea Party challenger with little chance of winning the general election.

In short, this will provide a prime opportunity for presidential candidates to send a message. But which White House hopeful will send it?

According to a source deeply involved in Maine politics, most candidates will try to avoid the issue. 

For example, Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneYahoo failed to prioritize security: report Overnight Tech: Lawmakers, tech talk diversity | Group raises security worries over internet handoff | FCC commish wants probe into debate Wi-Fi Reid blocks Thune tech bill over FCC nomination fight MORE (R-S.D.) has a chance to gain some credibility with the Tea Party by backing an insurgent bid against Snowe, but probably won’t thanks to his “chiseled-in-stone and buttoned-up” approach to national politics.

But if Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, who have a history of backing insurgent candidates, lurch for the Tea Party candidate, it may force others to jump in as well. 

Huckabee already looks ready. Last year, the former Arkansas governor showed his distaste for Snowe by using her as an example in setting ideological standards for his HuckPAC.

“Not one penny will go toward helping pro-choice Republicans like Olympia Snowe,” he wrote in a post on the political action committee’s blog.

But other Republicans have been less forthright. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) told Fox News: “Well, you’ve got to love Olympia. … Olympia is enigmatic … she’s someone who you just have to sit back and wonder where she’s going to go.”

The clearest example of how Republicans will struggle with the Snowe Dilemma comes from Pawlenty, and now — as promised — it’s time for one of the most fascinating conversations you never heard.

Here are the highlights from Scarborough and Pawlenty’s conversation on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”:

SCARBOROUGH: Olympia has a long voting record. … Right now, you’ve got to make a choice, based on her voting record over the past 20 years and where she is right now: Do you want Olympia Snowe in your Republican Party?

PAWLENTY: There is a process in her state that is broad-based, that endorses her, and the Republicans in that state say, “We want her to be our candidate.”

[Later in their conversation]

SCARBOROUGH: Are you glad that Olympia Snowe is a Republican?

PAWLENTY: Well, the people of Maine —

SCARBOROUGH: [interrupting] I’m asking about you, because we’re talking about this litmus test. Are you like me — and I’ll say it; I’ll let the conservative blogs kill me today — are you glad that Olympia Snowe is a Republican in Maine instead of a Democrat in Maine?

PAWLENTY: Well, I’d much rather have a Republican than a Democrat in Maine, that’s for sure.

SCARBOROUGH: Are you glad Olympia Snowe is in your party?

PAWLENTY: Well, I think Olympia Snowe is somebody who’s more liberal than most Republicans would like, but she is better than having a Democrat represent Maine.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI (CO-HOST): Was that a “yes,” governor?

PAWLENTY: Well, look, if the people of Maine have an open process and they selected her, it’s different. 

Those few uncomfortable minutes could turn into a few uncomfortable months for the 2012 field as its members grapple with the Snowe Dilemma.

Heinze is the founder of GOP12.com.  Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com