This is the winter of Sarah Palin's discontent. Her "don't retreat, reload" rhetoric blew up on her when Americans started fretting about heated political talk after an Arizona gunman shot a congresswoman and killed a federal judge. Then she added insult to injury by trying to claim she was the real victim, of a "blood libel." Her poll numbers now are lower than at any time since she came on the national scene, and when New Hampshire Republicans voted in a presidential straw poll at their annual meeting, only 7 percent picked Palin.
A new Public Policy Polling survey suggests that, were the GOP to nominate Palin in 2012, Democrat Barack Obama could win even solidly Republican states. "Obama with a chance in Texas... but only against Palin," read the headline on the PPP report.
For Palin, it seems to be all bad news. And that is good news for Michele Bachmann. As the shine goes off Palin, the constantly controversial congresswoman from Minnesota is doing everything she can to make herself the new star of the Republican right.
While Sarah Palin scrambles to explain herself, the more competent if perhaps a bit more wide-eyed and wild-worded Michele Bachmann is scrambling around the country -- trying to position herself as the presidential candidate that Palin may not be.
She stormed through the first Republican caucus state of Iowa over the weekend, telling large and enthusiastic conservative crowds that: "We repealed 'Obamacare' in the House of Representatives this week, but in order to be able to get rid of it, we have to be able to have a different president…"
The congresswoman has announced that she return to the caucus state in the spring, if not sooner. Bachmann says it is not "personal ambition" that propels her to position herself as a possible candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nod. However… if any Iowa Republican would like to slap a "Bachmann for President" sticker in that spot on the truck bumper that had been reserved for a Palin sticker, well, the congresswoman will not object.
The Republican Party has shown a penchant for women candidates in recent years, as long as they are aligned with the Tea Party movement and proud to evidence extremism of the sort that William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater used to condemn. Nikki Haley, Jan Brewer, Sharon Angle, Linda McMahon, Christine O'Donnell and a host of others worked the angle in 2010. That's hardly surprising; against a field of generally bland and predictable white men, women and people of color are more palatable advocates for the warmed-over conservative talking points that pass for a "fresh" Republican agenda.
There's no question that Palin drew the template for this new politics of the right, with her 2006 campaign for governor of Alaska and her 2008 campaign for vice president. But with Palin looking less and less presidential, Bachmann sees an opening. And she's seizing it.
Second only to Palin when it comes to her Tea Party profile, in possession of a Congressional platform, and both more able when it comes to public speaking and perhaps a good deal more driven, Michele Bachmann does not even try to dismiss talk of her running. "Of course, people will be speculating about who our nominee will be," she chirps. "That's only natural." Natural? Perhaps, in a carefully manipulated way. Politically smart? Definitely.
When 273 members of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee -- key players in the first GOP presidential primary state -- voted in Saturday's straw poll, mainstream conservative Mitt Romney won, with 35 percent of the vote. The next closest contender was Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Palin was at 7, Bachmann at 5.
But if all the candidates with Tea Party appeal were added together -- Bachmann, Palin, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, Indiana Congressman Mike Pence, conservative commentator Herman Cain, among others -- they received well over 30 percent.
Bachmann's bet -- and it is a savvy one, with Palin on the sidelines --is that she could be the unity candidate of the Tea Partisans.
That doesn't necessarily make her the nominee. But it could make her a dramatically more powerful force on the Republican right -- ultimately, perhaps, even more powerful than Sarah Palin.
John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation.
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