Barack Obama hadn't even clinched the 2008 election when a prominent Republican pollster took soundings on his party's 2012 prospects. Neil Newhouse's survey produced a surprising result.
Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, often touted recently as the next GOP front-runner, finished third behind two 2008 also-rans, former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
Whether that represented long-term damage from negative publicity about Palin's campaign foibles is unclear. In any case, it was a sign the next GOP race is already under way. There are other signals.
How else to explain her nonstop round of television interviews this week after her last pre-election stop Nov. 3 in Dubuque, Iowa, a conservative stronghold in a solidly Democratic state - but the one that again will launch the nominating process four years hence?
And in 10 days, Louisiana's 37-year-old governor, Bobby Jindal, will make his initial Iowa appearance by keynoting a Christian conservative gathering in the Des Moines suburbs. Besides the Iowa Family Policy Center ACTION's Celebrating the Family banquet, aides say he'll visit flood victims in Cedar Rapids.
If Palin and Jindal already are eyeing the Hawkeye state, January's top two Republican caucus finishers, Huckabee and Romney, can't be far behind. Two days before Jindal's appearance, Huckabee, the 2008 Iowa caucus winner, will be there as part of a national book tour.
Of course, the 2008 election reminded us of the danger of premature assumptions.
After George W. Bush's re-election victory, pundits agreed that in looking ahead:
Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee.
George Allen and Bill Frist were eclipsing fellow Sen. John McCain as a White House prospect.
That promising newcomer, Sen.-elect Barack Obama, needed a full Senate term before seeking the White House in 2012.
Palin seems likely to remain the central figure in early 2012 Republican speculation, despite those negative stories from this year's campaign. After all, long before "Saturday Night Live" mocked her ambitions by showing her hawking "Palin in 2012" T-shirts, she had made clear her long-term ambition.
According to The New York Times, when a friend and supporter suggested back in 1996 that she could be Alaska's governor if she played things right, she reportedly responded, "I want to be president."
And her vice presidential selection was not only the result of calculations by McCain's advisers. Some reports suggest she went out of her way to bring herself to the attention of GOP power brokers.
But as generations of unsuccessful hopefuls can attest, running for president is very hard. Palin faces a challenge in maintaining support in the GOP's conservative ranks. A key decision will be how to spend the next several years. An early dilemma could arise if, as many think likely, Sen. Ted Stevens is forced to resign or is ousted from the Senate, assuming he survives his current re-election race.
Palin may face pressure to run and probably would win. But that course is fraught with peril; moving to Washington and having to vote on hundreds of issues is not necessarily helpful for winning national office. Besides, there is no guarantee she would impress all of her Senate colleagues.
She might fare better by staying as governor and relying on her "grass roots" appeal to become the darling of the GOP fundraising circuit. Her outgoing personality and personal attractiveness make her a natural for television talk shows. But her problems in campaign interviews suggest she needs to bone up on national and international issues on which she often seemed to have a shallow understanding. That won't be a barrier, assuming she's as smart as some of her fans say.
Eventually, personality and hype will give way to substantive comparisons with potential rivals. The long primary campaign and the multiplicity of debates tend to expose candidates who lack scope and depth.
Sarah Palin was one of this year's bright new stars, but sustaining that brightness for four years will be no easy trick.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.
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