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Sarah Palin goes to Iowa (and why it might matter less than you think)

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will visit Iowa in September, a visit that will stoke 2012 speculation. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's trip to Iowa for a Republican party fundraising dinner next month will take already-rampant speculation about her interest in a 2012 presidential bid and drive it into the political overdrive.

But, should it?

As anyone who reads this blog knows, we have long maintained that no politician goes to Iowa by accident. Just doesn't happen. And that goes double when the trip is six weeks before an election that looks to be an electoral windfall for Republicans in the Hawkeye State. (Republicans look like a lock to pick up the governor's mansion and are making a serious run at Rep. Leonard Boswell.)

Palin has a finely-tuned ear to what draws attention in the political world -- even her critics would have to grant that -- and knows that a trip to the state that kicks off the 2012 presidential nominating process will create a furor among the political class in Iowa and nationally.

And so, Palin's decision to headline the Republican Party of Iowa's "Reagan Dinner" is rightly understood as a purposeful first step -- or a toe-dipping -- into the 2012 race by the 2008 vice presidential nominee.

That said, the assumption that Palin is the de facto Iowa caucus winner if she decides to get into the race overlooks at least two major hurdles facing her candidacy.

The first problem for Palin is that she has done almost no spadework in the Hawkeye State to date. She made a brief visit to Sioux City during her book tour in late 2009 but has not been back to the state since then.

And, in conversations with a handful of Iowa Republican operatives, it's clear that Palin hasn't engaged in much outreach to the key activists and operatives in the Hawkeye State who traditionally help aspiring national candidates begin to build their Iowa organizations years in advance of the actual caucus vote.

Palin should take a lesson from Hillary Clinton in 2008. Clinton avoided the state -- or even encouraging the formation of a campaign-in-waiting -- for much of the run-up to her presidential bid, knowing that a visit to Iowa would drive the political press corps batty with speculation about her plans.

As a result, Clinton went more than three years without visiting Iowa. By the time she did come to the state -- in January 2007 -- she was already well behind people like then Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in the long courtship of the state's voters.

The lesson? Iowa voters -- and the various activists who have made a cottage industry of delivering small segments of the caucus vote -- want care and feeding (and lots of it). No matter how much of a celebrity a candidate may be, she (or her) can't bypass the relationship-building that sits at the core of any successful Iowa effort.

The second potential hurdle for Palin in Iowa is that the polling that has been conducted on the 2012 Iowa field suggests that she runs in the middle of the pack rather than at the front.

A Voter Consumer Research poll conducted for the "Iowa Republican" website earlier this month put former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 22 percent followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 18 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 14 percent and Palin at 11 percent.

One poll is, of course, just that and rightly understood as a snapshot in time. But, the fact that Palin is not a clear frontrunner -- or anywhere close to it -- does suggest that the idea that she could waltz to an Iowa caucus victory by simply showing up is misguided.

It's worth noting that the fungibility of the field could well alter these calculations.

Should Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, choose not to run, Palin would almost certainly be the prime beneficiary as the two share a strong base of support among Iowa's influential social conservative movement.

And, if Romney skipped Iowa -- as some in the party believe he could/should do -- that would throw open the race and create win scenarios for all of the remaining candidates (including Palin) that are tough to imagine today.

It's clear, however, that there is more smoke than fire regarding Palin's political prospects in Iowa at the moment. Her trip next month will create an absolute frenzy of coverage but remember that winning the Iowa caucuses is like a glacier: the bulk of it goes on under the surface.

Palin has done little of that behind-the-scenes work to date and needs to quickly play catch up if she wants to seriously compete in the Hawkeye State come January 2012.

By Chris Cillizza  | August 31, 2010; 12:04 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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