Palin, Romney Play Chess in Tuesday's Primaries

Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and former presidential contender Mitt Romney on the trail in August 2008 Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The 2012 presidential election may be 29 months away, but the potential players are stalking each other like chess grandmasters. Tonight's round of gubernatorial and Senate primaries could provide early indicators of who is most shrewdly mobilizing their pieces into position.
Three states with big races on Tuesday represent potential game-changers in 2012. Iowa and South Carolina occupy key early positions in the presidential-primary calendar, while California boasts a mother lode of winner-take-all delegates.

For presumed hopefuls like Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee, the calculation is simple. Endorse a statewide candidate who wins (both tonight and in November's general election), and that person could repay the favor—and bring along their supporters and donors—or at worst remain neutral in 2012. But backing a loser means having your political savvy and star power called into question—at least for a day.

Here's a quick look at the endorsements in play in Tuesday’s primaries:

Iowa: Just as Romney and Huckabee turned the 2008 caucuses into a grudge match, their rivalry has shadowed this year's governor's race. Romney backs Terry Branstad, a former four-term governor looking to reclaim his old job. Huckabee long ago endorsed his opponent, the conservative outsider Bob Vander Plaats. Then, last week, Palin entered the fray with a curiously tepid tweet and Facebook endorsement of Branstad, causing frictions among supporters on her Facebook wall. But Palin likely sniffed the breeze; Branstad leads big in the latest polls and also looks a sure bet in a general-election matchup against the Democratic incumbent, Chet Culver. If you're aiming to run in 2012, it pays not to alienate the likely Iowa governor.

South Carolina: Again, Romney and Palin are backing the same horse (state Rep. Nikki Haley), whereas Huckabee has endorsed one of Haley's rivals, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer. This race has recently turned ugly, with adultery accusations enveloping Haley. And it is Palin who has rushed to defend her fellow "mama grizzly" with a passionate Facebook post beginning, "Well, whaddaya know?" as well as TV ads and robocalls that tout Haley's family credentials. Haley is well ahead, according to the latest polls, and if she wins, she will be well on her way to claiming the governorship in this deeply red state.

California: Romney has endorsed former eBay CEO Meg Whitman in the governor's race; Palin and Huckabee are both keeping their powder dry. Palin, however, has created waves in the GOP Senate primary by endorsing former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. This meant spurning the more conservative Tea Party candidate, Chuck DeVore (who scooped up Huckabee's endorsement). Whitman and Fiorina are the likely winners tonight, but mild underdogs against the Democrats in November.

The upshot? Romney is endorsing candidates who mirror his executive credentials—and largely playing it safe. Huckabee is positioning himself as the authentic conservative and evidently not endorsing based on the polls, a possible clue that he will eventually forsake a run. And intriguingly, Palin, despite her common cause with the Tea Party, looks to be keeping a close tail on Romney and ditching conservative candidates who cannot win. We don’t yet know if any of these three will be serious presidential contenders, but the decisions they make in the 2010 midterms have fascinating implications for the chessboard in 2012.