Sarah Palin stumbles, others rise on Iowa stage
The Sarah Palin surge may be over before it really began.
The former Alaska Governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee made headlines last week when she said she had a "servant's heart" and was "interested" and then "seriously interested" in running for president in 2016.
Thanks to these remarks, and the devoted following she still commands, the national spotlight was firmly on Ms Palin as she took to the stage on Saturday at a gathering of presidential aspirants before grassroots conservatives in Des Moines, Iowa.
The post-event reviews, however, have not been kind.
The Washington Examiner's Byron York calls her 33-minute speech "long, rambling and at times barely coherent".
Ms Palin spoke about media bias, the film American Sniper, Barack Obama, energy policy, Margaret Thatcher and women in politics, among other topics. And while she did supply a steady diet of her trademark zingers - "The man can only ride you when your back is bent" - the end result was something more akin to avante garde, improvisational performance art.
"By the time Palin finished speaking, it was hard for anyone to believe she truly is 'seriously interested' in running for president," York concluded.
The speech isn't the only evidence that Ms Palin's presidential aspirations may be nothing more than talk, however. As the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza points out, while other possible candidates have been building campaign infrastructure and engaging in the often gruelling work of courting local party functionaries, Ms Palin has done nothing.
"Yes, by dint of her name recognition and the vaunted place she occupies for some part of the conservative movement, if she announced her candidacy tomorrow there would be a constituency for her," he writes. "But her ability to build and grow that constituency in a way that would allow her to, you know, actually have a chance at winning would be entirely dependent on her having built a political apparatus that she has never shown an interest in doing."
Although Ms Palin's appearance may have been all noise, signifying nothing, the Iowa event was an opportunity for some more organised candidates to improve their presidential prospects.
Of the nearly two dozen potential candidates to take the stage, Senator Ted Cruz received one of the warmest receptions. Just two years after bursting onto the national political arena in a surprising upset of a well-funded primary opponent, the Texan has made a name for himself as a grassroots, Tea Party favourite who is willing to take on the Republican establishment.
"Mr Cruz credibly and inspirationally touched on every key theme of the current zeitgeist, and is clearly the favourite of the conservative activists," writes conservative radio talk show host Steve Deace for the Washington Times. "If there were a straw poll at this event, he would've won it."
The National Review's Jim Geraghty agrees that Mr Cruz would "easily get elected president of Conservative America," although he wondered about his broader appeal.
"The question is whether he can win votes among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who don't already agree with him," he writes.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker also garnered considerable praise - for his folksy demeanour in Iowa and his proven ability to win elections while governing conservatively in a battleground presidential state.
"The Wisconsin governor, in rolled-up shirtsleeves, paced the stage as he blasted big government and touted a long list of conservative reforms he's pushed through in blue Wisconsin," writes Cameron Joseph of the Hill, a Washington, DC, political newspaper. "The governor also showed a rhetorical flourish that's largely been absent from his previous campaigns, drawing the crowd to its feet multiple times."
Mr Walker has the ability to become a Republican fusion candidate, writes Slate's John Dickerson, by appealing to both Tea Party conservatives and the party's establishment.
"As Walker spoke you could almost hear the political boxes being checked off," he says. "He thanked the conservative voters of Iowa, and the country, for supporting him in his fight against unions with money and prayers. This wasn't only good form - it highlighted that he has a national fundraising base (ie he can go the distance) and that he is a man of faith (ie he's just like you)."
Meanwhile Chris Christie made waves in Iowa just by showing up. The New Jersey governor is considered an East Coast establishment pick, so the gathering of roughly 1,500 grass-roots activists hosted by hard-right Congressman Steve King wasn't his natural constituency.
But while other perceived establishment candidates - such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney - gave the Iowa event a pass, Mr Christie put the best face on his brand of combative, New Jersey style politics. Noah Rothman of HotAir sums up his pitch: "You may not love me, but you'll respect my honesty."
"Christie closed with a fiery call to arms in defence of the nation's freedoms, and he was given a standing ovation from the audience of Freedom Summit attendees," Rothman writes. "Christie knows he has a problem with conservatives and, without wallowing in it, he did what he could to address and mollify those voters' concerns."
Also on the stage on Saturday were two former candidates both appealing to the same social conservative right that Mr Cruz is targeting, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. And then there was the "clown car" of longshot aspirants, as Politico's Roger Simon puts it, including eccentric businessman Donald Trump, paediatrician-turned-conservative-pundit Ben Carson and Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn.
Their presence was notable, according to Simon, less for their electoral chances (slim to hopeless) than for their willingness to level attacks against Mr Bush, Mr Romney and the Republican establishment.
"In the circus, the worse thing clowns lob is confetti," Simon writes. "In the political circus, the clowns lob grenades. Verbal, to be sure, but they still can be deadly."
If any of the barbs drew blood, however, there's a lifetime of opportunity to recover after only this first skirmish in the long 2016 Republican nomination campaign.
In fact, the following day, two of the more prominent presidential hopefuls who didn't travel to Iowa, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, appeared alongside Mr Cruz in Palm Springs, California, during a forum hosted by the deep-pocketed conservative kingmakers Charles and David Koch.
If Iowa was all about appealing to the grassroots Tea Party conservatives, Palm Springs was catering to an audience of high-rolling Republican fundraisers.
Performing for activists and soliciting money from donors - it was arguably the first weekend of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination battle, but the routine is already set. It'll just be much, much more of the same leading up to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, a mere 344 days away.