Gingrich may have inside track on Palin's endorsement

NEW YORK - MAY 04: Sarah Palin speaks onstage at Time's 100 most influential people in the world gala at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on May 4, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Time Inc) *** Local Caption *** Sarah Palin
Jemal Countess
Sarah Palin
Jemal Countess

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

Almost immediately upon Sarah Palin's announcement that she would not seek the Republican nomination for president, the phone calls from almost all of the GOP candidates began pouring in. They wanted her endorsement.

While Palin has characteristically kept her cards close to her chest, advisers suggest that the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee is likely to endorse before someone emerges as the inevitable nominee -- and that Newt Gingrich appears to be best-positioned to secure her support.

"They speak very favorably of Newt and what they see as his credentials as compared to Perry and Romney," one member of Palin's inner circle said of the former Alaska governor and her husband, Todd, who has long served as her unofficial chief adviser.

Gingrich has been particularly effusive in expressing his admiration for Palin over the last few months, and she has returned the favor by heaping praise on the former House speaker.

"Newt Gingrich again, I think, did the best because he seems to be above a lot of the bickering that goes on," Palin said on Fox News after a Republican debate in Las Vegas last month, adding that Gingrich would "clobber" President Obama in a general election debate.

Palin and her advisers have in recent weeks discussed when her endorsement might have the greatest impact on the race, but the timing remains undetermined.

But Palin would likely have the biggest influence if she were to back a candidate before the Iowa caucuses. Her still considerable clout with the evangelical and Tea Party-leaning wings of the party could have a particularly significant impact in Iowa and in the first-in-the-South primary in South Carolina.

Aides emphasized that while Gingrich currently appears to be the front-runner for Palin's endorsement, her thinking could change.

"She's very focused on crony capitalism and the permanent political class," a second Palin adviser said, pointing to her recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the topics. "That's her emphasis. She's looking for candidates to pick that up."

Gingrich was one of the first Republican contenders to praise Palin's Labor Day weekend address in Iowa on the culture of corruption in Washington, calling it "a very, very important speech."

But as a fixture of the Washington establishment who was first elected to Congress in 1978, Gingrich might be seen in some ways the epitome of that "permanent political class," and questions about the $1.6 to $1.8 million he reportedly received in consulting fees from mortgage giant Freddie Mac is just one issue that could make Palin think twice before lending him her support.

"[Gingrich] is the poster boy for what she rails against," said a strategist for a rival campaign that has been actively courting Palin for support.

Though Gingrich is far from an ideal candidate to Palin and her advisers, his rivals may carry even more baggage in her eyes.

National front-runner Mitt Romney has praised Palin many times, and senior aides have effectively enforced an internal rule within the campaign: Speak no ill of Sarah Palin.

Behind the scenes, according to Palin aides, Romney has been among those who have most vigorously sought Palin's endorsement, which could go a long way toward boosting his support with a largely skeptical conservative base.

But Romney is anathema to many of Palin's hard-core supporters, and if she were to back him before the nominee is determined, it would likely be seen by many of her devotees as a betrayal of her principles.

Though Palin was a vocal supporter of Rick Perry during his 2010 gubernatorial primary fight against Kay Bailey Hutchison, the former Alaska governor is said to have significant reservations about his record in Texas of rewarding political donors with plum positions, among other concerns.

Though Michele Bachmann declared in August that she and Palin were "very good friends," their private relationship has, in fact, been non-existent for almost two years, and Bachmann does not appear to be in the running for Palin's backing.

As an outsider who shares Palin's general worldview and many elements of her political style, Herman Cain might at one time have been a leading candidate for the Palin nod.

But despite her long record of putting her neck on the line for unlikely underdogs, Cain's frequent stumbles on basic policy questions and his bungled reaction to allegations of sexual harassment have made it unlikely she would back him at this point.

Nonetheless, the Cain campaign -- like just about all of its rivals -- sees Palin's endorsement as one of the most alluring opportunities to peak at the right time.

"Iowans spend a lot of time examining these candidates, and no Iowan is going to invest all of this time looking at the candidates and the issues and then let someone else make that decision for them," said Cain's Iowa consultant Steve Grubbs. "Having said that, there are certain endorsements that would certainly provide momentum."

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.