Sarah Palin has shaken up the 2012 Republican presidential candidate field without even entering the race.
Shortly after her announcement of a cross-country bus trip, former Massachusettes Gov. Mitt Romney, arguably the Republican front-runner, said he would formally enter the race next week in New Hampshire, the site of the first GOP primary.
Ex-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who formally entered the race Monday and could lose media attention to a candidate like Palin, found himself fending off questions about the former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate as he toured the morning talk shows on Friday.
“Who knows? I don't know if she's running or not,” Pawlenty said on MSNBC's “Morning Joe.”
“We need to quit worrying about polls and bus tours and get onto the issue of how we're going to fix the country and get the country back on track,” he said.
For weeks the GOP race had been coalescing around Romney and discussion of who would emerge as the “anti-Romney” candidate. Those questions intensified as a number of high-profile Republicans, including Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, decided against a campaign.
Given Palin’s name recognition and support among grassroots conservatives, her formal entrance into the campaign would immediately transform the Republican contest, shifting it from a battle between Romney and more than a half-dozen candidates hoping to emerge from the Iowa caucuses to a race between Romney and Palin with other candidates hoping to break through.
The conservative blogger Allahpundit wrote Monday on the site Hot Air that Palin’s entry “would transform a race between Romney and Not Romney into a race between Palin and Not Palin.”
Allahpundit argued this could help Romney, saying that the former Massachusetts governor would “much rather be Not Palin” than be Romney.
Gallup’s latest polling shows Romney with a slight edge over Palin among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Seventeen percent prefer Romney, with 15 percent preferring Palin. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is third with 10 percent, and every other candidate is in the single digits.
Pawlenty, with 6 percent, trails former Godfather's Pizza Herman Cain, with 8 percent.
If Romney might initially be helped by a Palin candidacy, the polling suggests other candidates could struggle for the media limelight in a race with Palin, a best-selling author who appeared this week in the “Dancing with the Stars” season finale audience.
Palin’s base remains with social conservatives, an audience up for grabs now that Huckabee, who won the Iowa cacusues in 2008, is out of the race.
“She threatens people who are do or die in Iowa or are do or die with social conservatives. If you are building your winning formula around either of those two things, she's going to cause a problem for you,” Republican strategist Todd Harris said Thursday on MSNBC. “Because whether she runs or not, there is going to be speculation about her running. She is going to freeze a big chunk of the base."
Palin’s ability to raise money online from grassroots supporters could put a dent into the bank accounts of other Tea Party favorites such as Bachmann and Cain, who has shown surprising strength in early polls and handled himself well in a debate this month.
Palin would be less likely to damage the fundraising abilities of Romney, Pawlenty and former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who are drawing money from major GOP donors.
Still, with Palin in the race, some of those donors might need to coalesce around a single establishment candidate earlier if they want to knock out Palin.
Given Romney’s early advantages, that could hurt Huntsman and Pawlenty.
Palin, of course, has notable weaknesses. An April NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Palin with a 53 percent unfavorable rating among the general public.
While the poll showed she is well-liked by conservatives and Tea Party supporters, one in four Republicans held unfavorable view of her, a much higher number than for other GOP candidates.
Those high unfavorable numbers will convince some Republicans that Palin would have no shot in a general election against President Obama. That favors Romney.
Sensing Palin's move as an indicator that the field is still unsettled, other dark-horse candidates waiting on the sidelines appear interested in jumping in.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said Friday he is thinking about jumping into the race, and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R), who mounted a failed White House bid in 2008, announced that he’ll travel next month to New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state.