01/03/2012 12:59 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2012

Republican Diva Derby: Who Will Win Sarah Palin's Coveted Endorsement?

So far, none of the Republican presidential candidates has received more than a handful of endorsements from major party officials. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has emerged as Mitt Romney's biggest -- and most combative -- early backer, while Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is eagerly stumping for Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Others, following the lead of GOP power-brokers like South Carolina Senator James DeMint and former RNC Chairman Haley Barbour, who've declared their intention to stay neutral until the convention in Tampa, have seemed content to stay on the sidelines -- for now.

But expect that to change dramatically when the GOP contest moves from Iowa and New Hampshire to the next round of decisive contests in South Carolina, Florida and Nevada. As the GOP field winnows, and the political jockeying intensifies, the importance of timely, high-impact endorsements will be magnified, and a tidal wave of public statements and commitments is sure to follow.

And no would-be endorser is likely to generate more media buzz -- or to have more impact on the GOP race -- than former Alaska governor-turned 2008 vice-presidential candidate-turned reality TV star Sarah Palin. She may not be quite the political king-maker she was in 2010, when she managed to rally conservatives behind the re-election of John McCain in Arizona and Perry in Texas, while catapulting to power relative unknowns like Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Nikki Haley in South Carolina. But Palin, who recently caused one of her trademark stirs when she seemed to imply -- for the umpteenth time -- that she might still run for the presidency herself, can still command the support of an important slice of conservative voters.

Even those who despise her -- and their ranks have grown, it seems -- still recognize that she's not someone to be trifled with, let alone alienated, lest the former Alaska governor find a way to ridicule them, as Rick Perry and Bush political mastermind Karl Rove each discovered to his chagrin earlier this year.

Perry, in fact, is Exhibit A for why slighting Palin, even when you might not really mean to, can turn out to be politically costly. When Palin backed him in early-2010, Perry was under siege from the Bush wing of the Republican party, which had swung its support behind moderate Kay Bailey Hutchison, who appeared ready to unseat him in a bitterly-contested primary. But Palin drew some of the largest crowds in Texas political history, allowing Perry to regain his footing, trouncing Hutchison before going on to defeat his Democratic challenger, popular Houston mayor Bill White, by nearly 10 points.

Palin, of course, already had a 2012 presidential bid in mind, and probably thought, with some justification, that she could count on Perry's support. So it came as something of a shock when she learned -- through a lowly "lamestream media" reporter no less -- that Perry had decided to run for president himself. While publicly supportive, it wasn't long before Sarah the Vengeful struck, singling out Perry by name as a "crony capitalist" who comprised part of the country's "permanent political class" that promised taxpayers smaller government but always managed to raise their taxes and intrude on their lives. When Rep. Michelle Bachmann proceeded to attack Perry for having backed a government-mandated HPV vaccination program in Texas, Palin rushed her to her defense, less out of any love for her tea party rival, than to seize a fresh opportunity to bash the "disloyal" Perry.

Of course, Palin already knew about Perry's controversial vaccine program when she'd endorsed Perry over Hutchison. But her message probably wasn't lost on the other GOP candidates. Cross me politically, and I'm liable to cross you back, even if it means withdrawing my conservative bona fides and publicly trashing you as a RINO. If Perry hoped to distinguish himself as the "conservative alternative" to Romney, he wasn't going to be able to count on Palin's support. Should he have consulted with the party's diva before announcing his run? As a courtesy perhaps, but the fact is, the entire Republican party was already begging Perry to run, while the same Republican party (a good 70 percent of it, including her own supporters) was begging Palin not to.

Only in Palin-World, it seems, would running for president without her express permission be tantamount to treason, and thus, good cause for waging a campaign of mutually assured destruction.

But the fact is, Sarah Palin as GOP presidential candidate and Sarah Palin as GOP political endorser and cheerleader are two very different things, which is why every candidate secretly -- or not so secretly -- still wants her endorsement. One of the more intriguing possibilities is that Palin might back Newt Gingrich prior to the South Carolina primary, giving his sagging campaign a much-needed boost after getting hammered by just about everyone in Iowa and New Hampshire. A Palin endorsement could help Gingrich preserve his 20-point polling lead in the Palmetto state, which includes significant backing from evangelical Christians who comprise 60 percent of the GOP primary electorate, many of whom just so happen to be avid Palin supporters.

Any doubt about how badly Gingrich needs the Palin endorsement -- and what he might be willing to do to get it -- was removed this past week, when Gingrich told an audience questioner in Iowa that he thought Palin would be an attractive vice-presidential running mate. He also said that he was inclined to give Palin a cabinet post, possible Secretary of Energy, in a Gingrich-led administration. Palin, in the past, has made flattering remarks about Gingrich and his debate performances, calling him the "smartest guy in the room." And Gingrich, for his part, has consistently praised Palin's executive abilities and her political record in Alaska. In fact, until his recent nose-dive in the polls, it was widely assumed that Gingrich had the "inside track" on her endorsement.

Now Palin has to calculate the pros and cons of backing the fading Gingrich at a time when her fellow pro-life standard bearer, Rick Santorum, has caught fire among evangelical Christians, catapulting him into contention in Iowa and possibly, elsewhere. Palin has previously made such judgment calls in favor of the candidate she felt was more electable. Santorum, of course, hasn't yet demonstrated that, and Palin's endorsement, coming from the right, might not help him much, either. All the more reason, perhaps, for Palin to back Gingrich, or out of deference to Santorum, who wants her support, simply sit out the contest, at least for now. But Palin's also under attack from some of her Tea party supporters for raising millions of dollars for a presidential bid that she ended up abandoning. If she expects to survive politically, she needs to give her supporters a real voice in the 2012 race -- and soon.

Of course, there's always another possibility: Palin, for the "good of the party," might decide to cave in and back Romney. Not now, perhaps, but at a critical future moment, with the party divided in Tampa, or leading up to Tampa. That would allow Palin to cast herself in the role of party "unifier." Sound preposterous? Palin's no dummy: She wants to back a winner, in part to ingratiate herself with the very "permanent political class" that she so enjoys lambasting from the stump. And Romney's no dummy, either. He may not have much stomach for Palin, but when asked, he's been careful to praise her as a "source of positive energy". With little hope of garnering an official Tea Party endorsement, he clearly needs some way to rally the "Palinistas" if he hopes to get the nomination.

Would it work? Romney would have to offer Palin something that would make it worth her while to try to broker such a deal. And he'd have to find a way to do that without alienating mainstream, big-money Republicans -- to say nothing of independents -- who already think Palin's visibility as the VP candidate in 2008 cost the GOP the election. Undoubtedly, Romney's supporters don't want to see Palin in anything but a minor campaign support role. They also want her as far away from a new Romney-led administration as possible. It's not for nothing, then, that Gingrich, has offered Palin a role in his future government in exchange for her support against Romney. And undoubtedly, it has her thinking long and hard about whether her last best chance to get back in the GOP game is at hand, or whether she should wait, and take her chances further down the road.

Either way, for the rest of us, the never-ending Palin political circus will soon be back in town.