Why a Palin presidential bid helps other GOP candidates

Sarah Palin, as former Alaska Governor, speaks at the 'Restoring Honor' rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC

As grumbles about the lackluster Republican presidential field grow louder, reports of the return of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin are growing stronger. The New York Times reported that Palin is moving herself and her campaign operation, which is being bulked up, to Arizona, where it's easier to catch a flight to Iowa or New Hampshire than it is from Wasilla, Alaska.

So what does a possible Palin campaign mean to the rest of the party? Well, it could be a blessing in disguise for the Romneys, Pawlentys, Gingriches and Huntsmans of the world.

Why? It's all about the base -- and specifically, the growing solidification of the very conservative wing of the Republican base. Let's imagine the political spectrum as a football field. The Democrats and liberals are the to the left and the Republicans and conservatives to the right. The 50-yard line is the absolute political center.

So on the right, of the major candidates in the presidential race, Romney, Pawlenty, Gingrich and possibily Huntsman are all between the 35 and 20 yard lines. They have conservative credentials, no doubt, but they've all taken stances on certain issues in the past that they have to explain to the more conservative base. None of them is the ideal social AND fiscal conservative for many Republican primary voters -- thus the growing frustration.

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Case in point, the Tea Party-affiliated group FreedomWorks is reportedly opposing Romney as the potential Republican nominee. "Romney has a record and we don't really like it that much," Adam Brandon, the group's communications director told Jon Ward of The Huffington Post.

Back to the field. With no strong true conservatives in the race to appease the base, the candidates in are struggling to cover the entire ground and are pushing their ideologies more to the right than they really are, and therefore are struggling to explain past positions on health care and energy policy, among others.

These candidates going to the right mean they will have a tougher time winning back the middle in the 2012 general election. Side note: In 2008, John McCain stayed in the middle for the primaries, won the nomination and then tacked to the right during the general. Usually, candidates do the opposite.

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The void on the right is there because of the candidates not running -- Mike Huckabee and Rep. Mike Pence being the two biggest names on the right who aren't running. That leaves Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann as two contenders who could get in. Palin is the bigger name, and though she has growing negatives in recent CBS News polls, her support is strong, loud, and vibrant in the GOP base. Palin also has the name recognition within the base to make up for the lack of state-level operatives and campaign staff. She doesn't need the same sort of operation at this point as former Governors Jon Huntsman or Tim Pawlenty because she is so well known.

If Palin gets in, and signs point to her doing so, she could make the eventual GOP nominee stronger. One issue that has yet to appear in the GOP primary process is "electability," and Palin's entrance could give Romney, Pawlenty, Gingrich and, if he runs, Huntsman the ability to sell themselves as the best candidate to win over moderates and beat Barack Obama. Having the 5-20 yard lines filled by a Palin candidacy would allow the others to stay where they are, maintain their somewhat more moderate views, and set themselves up to be a stronger candidate against Mr. Obama. Without Palin or Bachmann on the right, the current flock of candidates have to go to the right and prove their conservative credentials but could risk losing any appeal to moderates and independents.

One un-named adviser to the Obama re-election campaign told Monday's Washington Post that, "Unless it's Palin or Gingrich, we expect a very close race no matter who emerges." For the Obama campaign, Palin winning the nomination is good thing, but a Palin candidacy could make the eventual GOP nominee a stronger foe in November 2012.

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    Robert Hendin is senior producer for "Face the Nation" and a CBS News senior political producer.