“The news from Delaware is crystal clear: It’s Sarah Palin’s party now,” Kerry wrote in a fund-raising e-mail titled “Delawow!” distributed yesterday. “We have to fight back. Click here to contribute right now to make sure we defeat the Tea Party extremists.”

“No one has been told directly, but staffers are working under the assumption that she’s running,” says one former aide who has knowledge of the inner workings of the PAC, who requested anonymity talking about his ex-boss’ plans. “It has become very apparent to everyone on her staff that she is preparing to run for president. The staff is now working. They are writing speeches, preparing talking points, picking congressmen to endorse all under the umbrella of what you would do two years out before running for president and that’s their understanding. It’s a 2012 ball game, and they should plan on that basis.”…

“No one can speak for her on that [2012],” said Rebecca Mansour, one of Palin’s top aides. “Nobody should underestimate her and I believe that she knows that to change the country, we have to change the Congress. So these elections are important to her because that’s what she’s focused on.”

But surely, if Palin’s endorsees are elected this fall and in office come 2012, it would be easier for her to govern, Mansour is asked. “Bingo,” the aide replies.

Sarah Palin bet on Christine O’Donnell, and the victory enhances Palin’s stature inside the Republican Party in that straightforward way.

More important, it shows that a candidate with her political weaknesses, only much more so — questions about qualifications, experience, and a confrontational partisan profile, plus some sexism — can win a Republican Party primary pretty much anywhere…

I’d say that if O’Donnell breaks 40%, that’s enough to give encouragement to a Palin bid, and it would take a really substantial wipeout to make a plausibly discouraging case.

Clinton also said she expects the Tea Party’s bark to be a bit stronger than its bite when it comes to its impact on U.S. foreign policy…

“Well, I’ve seen a lot of people run for office and say a lot of things and then when they have the burden of holding office and the responsibility that goes with it,” Clinton said. “I’ve seen them become very sobered, very quickly, about the challenges we face domestically and internationally.

“You know, nobody said it better than Mario Cuomo, who said, ‘You campaign in poetry, and you govern in prose.’ Sometimes the poetry can get kind of hot,” Clinton said with a laugh, “and a little over the top, but the prose brings you down to earth.”

Nobody knows how all this will play out, but we are seeing is something big—something homegrown, broad-based and independent. In part it is a rising up of those who truly believe America is imperiled and truly mean to save her. The dangers, both present and potential, are obvious. A movement like this can help a nation by helping to correct it, or it can descend into a corrosive populism that celebrates unknowingness as authenticity, that confuses showiness with seriousness and vulgarity with true conviction. Parts could become swept by a desire just to tear down, to destroy. But establishments exist for a reason. It is true that the party establishment is compromised, and by many things, but one of them is experience. They’ve lived through a lot, seen a lot, know the national terrain. They know how things work. They know the history. I wonder if Tea Party members know how fragile are the institutions that help keep the country together.

One difference so far between the Tea Party and the great wave of conservatives that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 is that latter was a true coalition—not only North and South, East and West but right-wingers, intellectuals who were former leftists, and former Democrats. When they won presidential landslides in 1980, ’84 and ’88, they brought the center with them. That in the end is how you win. Will the center join arms or work with the Tea Party? That’s a great question of 2012.