Alternate headline: “Politico buries lede.”

“It’s possible someone may get in later on,” Gillespie said, “but Republican activists, officials and donors are going to begin picking a horse from the current field. We have a field that will produce a nominee capable of beating Obama next November.”…

Republicans officials have no idea what [Palin is] planning, although they agree she would have tons to lose by entering a race that would cost her the mystique she has built up. And Romney advisers said her entry would help the former Massachusetts governor dramatically.

“The shock value would cause elected officials and party officials to rally around Mitt, because she’d scare the daylights out of them,” one official said. “And it would allow him to position himself very much in the middle of Republican, conservative thinking and avoid the fringe, and look more moderate for the general election.”

Bachmann would have the same effect, the advisers said. Either of them “gives Romney a bogeyman: ‘Stop this crazy woman.’”

In other words, Palin’s entry would transform a race between Romney and Not Romney into a race between Palin and Not Palin. And since being Mitt Romney is a poor position to be in these days, he’d much rather be Not Palin. I get the logic, I just don’t see why they think establishment Republicans would rally around Mitt instead of around Pawlenty. To repeat a point I made earlier today, once Palin is in and presumably wins Iowa, the establishment strategy will shift towards producing the strongest possible centrist candidate for the showdown in South Carolina to try to stop her there. Romney will be the best funded, but he’ll have RomneyCare hanging over his head, his record of flip-flopping on abortion, and of course the sensitive issue of his faith, which may or may not be a liability. Pawlenty has none of the baggage and has evangelical social conservative cred. And, just maybe, he’ll have an endorsement from Nikki Haley, whose political advisor happens to be T-Paw’s pollster.

What Romney’s team will have to do, if they see prominent conservatives starting to defect to Pawlenty, is play hardball by vowing to contest South Carolina as ferociously as possible even if T-Paw upsets him in New Hampshire. Given Romney’s money advantage, he could probably pull enough votes from Pawlenty in SC to make Palin the winner, the prospect of which will terrify Republican insiders. In that case, maybe they rally around Mitt before NH and try to broker a deal to put Pawlenty on the ticket as VP if he drops out and endorses Romney ASAP. Having lost Iowa and New Hampshire, his candidacy would be finished by South Carolina anyway. Speaking of which, CNN’s out with a new poll from New Hampshire tonight. Romney leads Pawlenty by 28 points — but fully 87 percent of Republicans are still undecided.

Exit question: Is it now or never for Palin? The field will be tougher in 2016 with Rubio, Christie, Paul Ryan, and Jeb Bush all in the mix, but even if she jumped in this time and won the nomination, she’d have to face an incumbent president at a moment when her favorable rating is still underwater. She’ll also have potentially stiff competition for the grassroots vote in Iowa from Bachmann and Cain, both of whom have been spending time in the state already. Tough call.