MANCHESTER, N.H. — “Thank you, Tea Party Americans,” Sarah Palin said as she began a 25-minute Labor Day speech at Veterans Memorial Park here, crediting the crowd with inspiring her. “You keep me going, and I thank God for you.”
The crowd was variously estimated between 600 and 800 people — certainly not as large as the biggest Tea Party rallies of the past two years, but large enough to raise eyebrows. “Palin, not even in the race, draws double the size crowd as [Mitt] Romney,” was the headline on a CBS News story. Considering that the former Massachusetts governor is the presumptive favorite in next year’s New Hampshire primary, what does it mean that Palin drew more people Monday in Manchester than Romney did Sunday evening in Concord?
Perhaps that’s an apple-and-oranges comparison: Romney is, after all, a familiar face to Republican voters in the Granite State and has campaigned tirelessly here, whereas Monday’s appearance in Manchester was only Palin’s second New Hampshire visit this year. Nevertheless, the size of the Labor Day crowd — and the sound of hundreds of Palin supporters chanting “Run, Sarah, run!” — were sufficient rebuke to those who have derogated the former Alaska governor’s presidential potential.
The dismissive sneers of Palin’s detractors were, quite literally, front-page news in the local press. “You tend to get a sense now that the times have passed by her.… People are looking elsewhere,” a University of New Hampshire political science professor said in an article splashed across the top of the front page of Sunday’s Manchester Union Leader. That article also quoted the head of a New Hampshire conservative group who jeered at Palin, the 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee, for “stringing the media along” and playing a “coy game” about her 2012 plans. People are “kind of over Sarah Palin at this point,” Kevin Smith, executive director of Cornerstone Action, told the Union Leader, saying that her long-delayed decision “is turning people off.”
The people at Veterans Memorial Park, however, weren’t turned off nor were they “over Sarah Palin.” Many traveled long distances to attend the event, including Mary Watson, a law student at Virginia’s George Mason University who had come to New Hampshire to distribute flyers for Students4Palin.com. What got her so fired up for Palin? “What is there not to be fired up about?” Watson answered. And like the Mama Grizzly’s hard-core supporters everywhere, she is “absolutely” certain that Palin will enter the 2012 race. “She’s biding her time and we’re all getting ready for her,” Watson said. “We’re gearing up, so whenever she says the word, we’re ready.”
That opinion is directly at odds with the view of most pundits and other members of “the permanent political class” whom Palin excoriated in her Manchester speech. It is nearly impossible to find any political reporter or commentator who thinks Palin seriously intends to join the GOP presidential field, and even conservative Republicans with strong Tea Party connections have discounted the possibility. “It doesn’t appear” Palin will run, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint told CBS News Monday, and insofar as traditional political methods are concerned, there are no real indications that Palin is putting together a campaign, but…
Well, one must always place an asterisk besides any prediction about Palin. None of the political experts who are now scoffing at her potential candidacy expected her to be picked as John McCain’s running mate in 2012, and Palin seems to delight in doing the unexpected. Without any advance warning to the press, for example, she ran a half-marathon race in Iowa over the weekend — a move that could be seen as an obvious metaphor: Nobody expected her to run, and yet she did.
Among Palin’s hard-core supporters, the reading of tea leaves has become a passionate avocation, and they point toward the text of her two speeches this weekend in Iowa and New Hampshire as evidence of her intent. Her criticism of “crony capitalism,” they say, is aimed at Texas Gov. Rick Perry. (See Christopher Horner’s analysis of Perry’s record on that score.) Palin endorsed Perry in his 2010 GOP primary against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, but Palin’s supporters insist that she would be willing to challenge the Texan who has quickly zoomed ahead in the Republican presidential field. And her self-imposed timetable for deciding on a 2012 campaign just happens to fit neatly with that theory.
Palin has repeatedly specified September as the fish-or-cut-bait month for her entry into the race. There will be three debates among the GOP contenders this month: Wednesday at the Reagan Library in California, Sept. 12 in Tampa, and Sept. 22 in Orlando. One imagines that, if Palin is seriously considering a 2012 run, she’ll be watching these debates very closely — especially because these will be Perry’s first debates of the campaign. Should Perry falter or stumble during the next three weeks, that might provide Palin the opening that her supporters so clearly want her to see. At least one reporter at Monday’s speech saw it, too. Danny Yadron of the Wall Street Journal said Palin “made clear a big gap in the 2012 GOP field: the lack of a strong conservative populist.”
“Run, Sarah, run!” the Manchester crowd chanted, forcing Palin to pause her speech and say, “I appreciate your encouragement. I do.” Will that encouragement be enough to bring Palin into the 2012 campaign as the bearer of the populist banner? The mere possibility is enough to give the “permanent political class” nightmares, and to inspire pleasant dreams for the people whose prayers her campaign would answer.