Leader of the pack, Part Two

On Tuesday, I speculated that the race for the Republican presidential nomination may not be wide-open, as many suppose it is, and I submitted that Sarah Palin quite possibly should be viewed as the clear front-runner. My analysis was based on a series of assumptions, one of which is that the Tea Party movement will back Palin and she will capture most of the Tea Party vote.
Ramesh Ponnuru questions this assumption. He writes:

The “movement” may be too decentralized for it to back one candidate. Maybe she will get a plurality of tea partiers, but I can see several other figures having some appeal to them. Mike Huckabee, for example, who has pretty good anti-establishment cred and has been campaigning for years now on getting rid of the income tax. (If the tea partiers want their views to permeate the Republican party over the long run, splitting their support to multiple candidates — all of whom will find it in their interests to court tea partiers — is probably the best strategy.) And who’s to say that Jim DeMint stays out of the race?

Ponnuru’s prognosis may well be as plausible as mine. But note that this year, the Tea Party vote has trended strongly towards one candidate even in races involving multiple conservative options – New Hampshire is the latest example. And, though splitting the vote among conservatives may be a good long-term strategy, I suspect that the Tea Party movement, and just about everyone else, will be fixated on the short term in 2012. If so, the best move is probably to be a “kingmaker” by backing one candidate, provided the leadership isn’t divided and the followers are willing to follow.
But is the movement too decentralized to back one candidate? I don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t seem that way to me these days. Reading the blitz of daily emails from the Tea Party Express, hearing about the money being raised, and seeing the polls move in response, makes me think of the operation as a rather well-oiled, monolithic machine.
This could change by 2012 when, as Ponnuru points out, the stakes will be so much higher. But will there be attractive alternatives to Palin?
Huckabee seems like the most plausible one. But his record as governor of Arkansas could be quite offputting to a movement committed to responsible and frugal conservative governance. (I won’t rehearse the facts that underlie this assertion, since Huckabee isn’t running yet.) Huckabee is a strong social conservative and this might play well with portions of the movement. But it’s difficult to get much to the right of Sarah Palin on social issues. Huckabee’s explicitly evangelical orientation might cause some Palin support to peel off. How much? Beats me.
As for DeMint, I see him as a powerful contender for a big share of the Tea Party vote if Palin doesn’t run. If she does run, I’m not convinced that DeMint will provide much competition nationally, though it’s certainly possible that he will.
Finally, let’s keep in mind that even if Palin is not the clear front-runner, this doesn’t mean the race is wide-open. It’s reasonable to suppose that the Republican nominee must be someone who appeals to the Tea Party movement. This may well rule out several candidates who were (and in some quarters still are) expected to be serious contenders.

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