Whaddya know? Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, one of the architects of the 2008 Democratic takeover, is wary of inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom. Political insiders who suggest President Barack Obama would trounce former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in the 2012 presidential election just might be mistaken, Dean said. In Dean’s opinion, Palin’s popularity outside the District could pose a problem for President Obama if she were to be the Republican nominee.

“I think she could win,” Dean told The Hill in an interview Friday. “She wouldn’t be my first choice if I were a Republican but I think she could win.”

Dean warns the sluggish economy could have more of a political impact than many Washington strategists and pundits assume.

“Any time you have a contest — particularly when unemployment is as high as it is — nobody gets a walkover,” Dean said. “Whoever the Republicans nominate, including people like Sarah Palin, whom the inside-the-Beltway crowd dismisses — my view is if you get the nomination of a major party, you can win the presidency, I don’t care what people write about you inside the Beltway,” Dean said.

Furthermore, Dean suggested the presidential primaries themselves prepare candidates to assume the presidency. Consequently, any candidate who wins the Republican nomination could become president more easily than might commonly be supposed.

Of course, the suspicious, cynical side of me wonders just why Dean is commenting on this in the first place. Is he trying to encourage Republicans to nominate someone he thinks couldn’t actually win? Or to relax Republican candidates who, right now at least, seem relatively aware of just how on-message they need to be to win in 2012?

In any case, the gist of his comments is sound: In 2012, few assumptions are safe.