WASHINGTON — Just when you thought it was safe to go back on the Republican campaign trail, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump are back.
All it took to set Twitter abuzz at the first big GOP campaign bash at the weekend was for The Donald and the 2008 vice presidential nominee to clear their throats and muse, yet again, about presidential campaigns.
But the idea that they’re both seriously searching their souls and considering a run for the White House doesn’t pass the smell test.
Trump and Palin are now more at the reality show end of the political spectrum than serious contenders — but they sure know how to get a headline.
They snatched more than their fair share of attention at Congressman Steve King’s cattle call in Iowa on Saturday — even as an impressive line-up of bona fide potential candidates tried to road test early 2016 messaging.
There are serious candidates out there who are almost certainly running for president — including Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina and Mike Huckabee, all of whom were at the Iowa event.
And there are those who just want some people to believe they might, just, might, run.
Given all the available evidence, Palin and Trump belong in the latter category.
Both are past masters at self publicity and appeared to view the massive media spotlight of the first big campaign event in Iowa as a great opportunity at the start of another campaign cycle.
Palin launched a bizarre, stream of consciousness rant against Hollywood, the left, President Barack Obama and the strange social media palaver whipped up by pictures of her son Trig standing on his labrador.
Her performance was all the more odd since she had deliberately raised expectations that she might be mulling a return to top-level politics ahead of the speech.
She told ABC News that anyone like her with a “servant’s heart” had no choice but to think about it.
Then, after bumping into reporters at a Des Moines hotel, Palin said “who wouldn’t be interested?”, according to The Washington Post.
So is Palin really considering a run for president?
Her largely inconsequential speech offered easy ammunition for her political enemies, making for an ineffective start.
And there’s no evidence that Palin is taking the serious moves needed of a candidate in an age when the price of entry for the presidential sweep stakes is millions of dollars. There’s also no buzz that Palin has sounded out top party donors or wants to snap up big name consultants.
Though some of her attack lines hit their mark with the audience of conservative activists, Palin was a pale imitation of the rock star who burst onto the scene in 2008 showing raw and rare political talent.
And the notion of a Palin presidential campaign seems a lot more remote than when she teased a run, but ultimately decided against it, in the last presidential cycle.
Her performance on Saturday dismayed key figures in conservative media, including some who thought she was unfairly put to the sword by the press in 2008.
Conservative columnist Byron York wrote in his Washington Examiner column that the Republican Party has a Palin problem.
“If there is indeed nothing behind her ‘seriously interested’ talk — and it appears there is not — should she be included in events leading up to the 2016 caucuses?” York wrote.
Conservative blogger Erick Erickson meanwhile said Palin’s speech was best “left uncommented on.”
Democrats are jubilant. Democratic National Committee communications director Mo Elleithee put out a simple statement reading “Thank you.” The pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary fired out a fundraising email on the back of Palin’s comments.
Trump meanwhile used the Freedom Summit to relaunch his own political sideshow, in mothballs since his 2012 presidential musings and his campaign to get Obama to publish his birth certificate.
But he touched raw nerves in the GOP, launching a fierce attack on potential establishment frontrunners Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney who skipped the event.
His broadsides seemed to fly in the face of efforts by party bosses to remove the circus atmosphere which marred the 2012 GOP presidential debates.
‘Mitt had his chance,” he said. “He should have won and he choked. You don’t want to give a choker a second chance.”
“We’ve had enough of the Bushes,” Trump blasted.
There is a long tradition of long-shot candidates launching presidential runs without any expectation of victory.
While many hope lightning will strike — comparative unknowns like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama built campaigns in Iowa that ended at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — most know it won’t.
But running for president in Iowa, even if you don’t make it to the caucuses themselves can be a good career move. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack for instance parlayed a campaign that never got off the ground into a job as secretary of the Agriculture Department. Other candidates — like Democratic gadfly Dennis Kucinich and libertarian Ron Paul — have used presidential campaigns to build personal political brands.
Joe Biden got less than 1% of the votes in the Iowa caucuses in 2008 — but ended up as a two-term vice president.
In each of those cases, the candidates offered more steak than sizzle; more policy than pizzazz.
And then there are those like Trump, who thrives on attention, and Palin, who needs to maintain a brand on the fringes of conservative media, for whom the oxygen of publicity as a new campaign grinds into gear seems too enticing to ignore.
By Stephen Collinson