Sarah Palin's re-emergence underscores Republican split

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — If the Republican Party is on the verge of an implosion, Sarah Palin may have been the one who lit the fuse.

The firebrand conservative has had a complicated relationship with Republican leaders since bursting on the national stage in 2008 as the surprise pick for the vice presidential nomination. What started with an embrace by party leaders evolved into wary tolerance, followed by a potentially irreparable split — a microcosm of the party's broader struggles with its most restive members.

So it's perhaps little surprise that Palin is re-emerging on the national political scene at this moment of reckoning for Republicans. While she's hardly the conservative kingmaker she once was, Palin remains a favorite of the tea party insurgency, and her endorsement of Donald Trump for the 2016 Republican nomination gives him an added boost of conservative, anti-establishment credibility.

"He's been going rogue left and right," Palin said Tuesday, with a beaming Trump standing by her side. "He's been able to tear the veil off this idea of the system."

Her endorsement of the billionaire real estate mogul some less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses kick off the state-by-state presidential nomination process.

Trump remains the Republican front-runner in a race that has shaken the Republican Party and sidelined traditional politicians once thought to be heavy hitters. His rise has worried Republican leaders who fear he would be unelectable in the general election against the eventual Democratic nominee. Hillary Clinton remains the front-runner in the Democratic race, though she is facing a growing challenge by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Palin owes her place on the national stage to the mainstream Republican Party. She was a little-known Alaska governor when Sen. John McCain — seen by some Republicans as an embodiment of the party establishment — tapped her as his running mate for the 2008 election that Barack Obama ultimately won.

Palin was an awkward fit as No. 2 on the ticket, but she built an enthusiastic following with conservatives. She blended more neatly into the tea party movement that blossomed during the first years of Obama's presidency and flirted with a White House run of her own in 2012 before concentrating on political punditry and reality television.

Mainstream Republicans have tried for the past several years to keep their system together by bringing lawmakers elected as disrupters into the fold rather than pushing them aside. It's a strategy that succeeded in winning the party the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, but it did little to achieve such conservative goals as overturning Obama's health care law or blocking increases in the nation's debt ceiling.

Now, the Republican Party system is cracking, leaving some in the establishment feeling they would be the outsiders in a party helmed by Trump — or by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a frequent tormentor of Republican leaders who is also strong contender for the nomination.

"I thought I was a traditional Republican conservative," says Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee who represented deeply conservative Kansas in Congress for decades.

Dole has been an especially vocal critic of Cruz, who has blamed Republican failures in presidential contests on the party's tendency to elect mainstream candidates like the longtime Kansas senator. However, Dole suggested in an interview Wednesday that he might be able to make peace with a Trump presidency, saying the businessman's reputation as a "dealmaker" could mean he's able to work with Congress.

Palin's endorsement of Trump is seen as a knock against Cruz, who has been on the rise in Iowa for several weeks. She campaigned for Cruz when he ran for the Senate in 2012, and he's said her support was instrumental in his victory.

Now it's Trump and Cruz who are pushing the anti-establishment movement further than she ever managed. Strong showings in Iowa by the billionaire and the senator could turn the Republican race into a two-man contest.

To be sure, a slew of politically experienced rivals are still hoping to blunt Trump's and Cruz's momentum once voting begins. But for now, more mainstream voters are dividing their support among Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, making it difficult for any one of them to mount a strong challenge.

In most recent elections, Republicans have tended to nominate center-right candidates who were seen as having the best prospects in the general election. Even after the 2010 tea party takeover in the House, the party nominated Mitt Romney — the former governor of moderate Massachusetts — in the 2012 presidential race.

Four years later, many Republican voters not only believe that nominating a centrist would cost them another shot at the White House, but they also are deeply skeptical that an establishment Republican president would follow through on their priorities.

"I'm so sick of the Republicans," said Scott Doremus, a retired commercial airplane pilot from Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, who is supporting Cruz. "Republicans have become just like Democrats."


AP writers Scott Bauer in North Conway, New Hampshire, and Jill Colvin in Norwalk, Iowa, contributed to this report.


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