The vacuum created by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s (R) absence from the 2012 campaign trail presents a major opportunity for the woman she once hinted might share a presidential ticket with her: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
With strategists and conservative activists increasingly convinced that Palin won’t make a run for the White House next year, she is losing some clout among her contingent of grassroots devotees who are eager to hit the 2012 campaign trail and rally behind an alternative to President Obama.
And polls reflect Bachmann’s growing cachet. The three-term lawmaker came in second in last week’s Gallup poll that measured GOP voters’ level of intensity about the 2012 hopefuls. Palin was sixth. The poll also found that Palin had a higher unfavorable rating, 8 percent, than Bachmann, who had a 4 percent disapproval rate.
This came just a week after a Gallup poll found Palin has the highest level of name recognition among potential Republican presidential contenders, with 92 percent. Bachmann was sixth with 52 percent.
The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll found that Palin’s favorability among Republicans has fallen to just 58 percent. That’s a staggering 30-point drop over the past two years.
In addition, Palin has taken lumps from critics who point to her television contracts with The Learning Channel and Fox News and say she is more interested in being a media figure than a serious candidate for president.
Reports that the entertainment channel E! is profiling the Palins as part of its “True Hollywood Story” series don’t help the former governor’s cause.
Palin’s camp did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
In Washington, Bachmann is one of the loudest voices warning the House Republican leadership against compromising on a pledge to cut spending by $61 billion, calling that number just “a starting point,” which is an important issue to the grassroots conservatives.
And in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Bachmann is serving up the sort of red meat to crowds of conservatives that echoes Palin on the trail in 2008 and 2010.
Last year, Palin headlined a large rally in Minneapolis on behalf of Bachmann’s reelection campaign, heaping praise on her and suggesting they could even appear on the same ticket.
“Someone had better tell Washington that that pink elephant is on the move, and Michele is leading the stampede,” Palin said, according to reports.
And, in a joint interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity, Palin was asked about the prospect of the two becoming running mates in 2012.
“Well, that sounds kind of cool. That sounds kind of cool,” Palin answered as the crowd cheered loudly.
Those close to Bachmann say she isn’t trying to supercede Palin, with one such source noting the two share “a friendship and mutual admiration.” But if Palin doesn’t run and Bachmann officially jumps in, the prospect is that Bachmann will drown out the former Alaska governor.
“She would absolutely be a force to be reckoned with among conservatives here in Iowa,” said Republican strategist Bob Haus, who called the reception Bachmann received during her recent trip to the state “impressive.”
Bachmann, he said, would go right for the heart of those voters who would make up Palin’s base in Iowa, and could do so effectively.
“She basically is Sarah Palin,” said another top Republican strategist in Iowa, who’s already signed on as an adviser to another 2012 hopeful. “In terms of her appeal to a specific part of the electorate, the two are about as similar as any two candidates get.”
Over the weekend, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) identified Bachmann as the one candidate who could compete with Palin’s conservative star power.
“If Congresswoman Bachmann gets in, she has the potential to appeal to a lot of people who might have gone for Gov. Palin,” Branstad told The New York Times. “Imagine if they both got in. That could make it really interesting.”
Palin endorsed Branstad in the GOP gubernatorial primary last cycle.
For her part, Palin hasn’t ruled out a 2012 run. She made an overseas trip to India and Israel last month, but unlike Bachmann, she’s not staffing up in key early primary states including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Even some of her former high-profile boosters in the conservative movement publicly indicate they’re looking for a new star who can truly give voice to the conservative grass roots next year.
Commentator Bill Kristol, who argued back in 2009 that Palin was all but inevitable as a presidential candidate, said late last month that she “probably shouldn’t be the Republican nominee for president” next year.
Speaking at a Vanderbilt University forum, Kristol raised questions about Palin’s decision to resign halfway through her term as Alaska governor. He also said last month that he’s been “disappointed” in her posture on the national scene since.
Palin has also cut down on her public statements via Facebook, an outlet she frequently used to get out her message last year, when she campaigned for GOP candidates and traversed the country on a book tour. The former governor wrote nearly three times the amount of Facebook posts in the run-up to the 2010 election and its aftermath (October-December) than she did in the first three months of this year, when other potential presidential candidates ratcheted up their political activity and Bachmann, in particular, became a fixture on cable news.
Still, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said Palin’s ability to move opinion within the conservative movement hasn’t diminished nearly as much as her detractors would like to claim. Norquist said he isn’t sure whether Bachmann or any one candidate would clearly benefit if the former governor takes a pass on 2012.
“My sense is that Sarah Palin’s power comes not from the sense that people expect her to be president, or even want her to be president,” said Norquist. “Her power lies in the fact that conservatives trust her judgment and that she has this ability to serve as a stamp of approval on candidates, on ideas.”
Norquist was among a group of conservative movement leaders who met with Palin last year in Florida, a meeting that, at the time, indicated she was seriously weighing a 2012 bid. Since, said Norquist, “she’s waited, not announced she’s running, not set up a network. I think that’s why so many people don’t think she’s running. But she’ll still be a major player no matter what she decides.”
Should Palin stay out of the 2012 race, her endorsement would be coveted by hopefuls angling for conservative credibility in a Republican primary, and perhaps no rumored candidate starts in a better spot to snag that backing than Bachmann.