Palin has good reasons not to run for the presidency. Her post-gubernatorial career has demonstrated that there is a profitable niche for a populist tribune who maintains a distance from nuts-and-bolts policymaking. Palin’s core message is cultural, one that centers on restoring America’s lost virtues. Were Palin to run for the White House, she’d risk jeopardizing an influential role that bridges the worlds of politics and entertainment. As a quasi-politician, Palin makes statements that attract the attention of millions, fans and foes alike, and she’s accorded deference from virtually all Republican politicians. As an unsuccessful presidential candidate, in contrast, she’d risk fading into obscurity. So while Palin has every reason to keep us guessing between now and Iowa, she may well become a kingmaker rather than a candidate.
Of the potential Republican candidates on offer, DeMint comes closest to filling the Palin vacuum. Haley Barbour, the Republican governor of Mississippi, is a staunch conservative, but he’s also a creature of the Beltway who made a fortune as a corporate lobbyist. Mitch Daniels, the much-admired governor of Indiana, might be too much of a cerebral wonk for Palin, and his emphasis on economic over social issues might pose a problem with activists. Mike Huckabee has the right populist tone, but he’s also identified with a strain of big government conservatism that Palin finds deeply distasteful. Palin and DeMint have clashed in the past—they’ve endorsed different candidates in a number of races, including the Senate primaries in Colorado and California—and DeMint, with a reputation as a prickly and unpleasant character, is disliked by many of his colleagues. But he appreciates Palin’s popularity among rank-and-file Republicans, and their worldviews are an almost perfect match.