Gov. Sarah Palin has seemingly overnight become the leading candidate for future leader of the conservative movement in the nation - regardless of whether she and running mate Sen. John McCain capture the White House in November.
Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin, the governor of Alaska, were invited to address this weekend's Values Voters Summit in Washington but are expected to be no-shows, leaving only Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich as two of the biggest political names scheduled to address the conclave of social conservatives.
Yet, neither the former Massachusetts governor nor the former House speaker tops the list of people conservatives are talking up as the next top leader of their movement.
Asked who that leader would be, Mr. Gingrich gave The Washington Times a two-word answer: "Sarah Palin."
It is not exactly an original thought on the right these days.
"If McCain wins, Sister Sarah becomes heir apparent with a huge political base, separate from and independent of McCain, and a vital interest in maintaining a degree of separation from McCain on sovereignty, trade, immigration and John McCain-Joe Lieberman-Lindsay Graham war policy," political commentator Pat Buchanan told The Washington Times.
"Neocons already moving to take her into camp," said Mr. Buchanan, a traditional conservative who has publicly battled with the neoconservatives that he and others claim have "hijacked" the GOP and turned it into the military interventionist "war party."
Mrs. Palin wasn't even known to most social conservatives at last year's summit. At that gathering, amid howls of complaints from evangelical supporters of Mike Huckabee who claimed the poll was fixed, Mr. Romney narrowly won the straw poll over the Arkansas governor and former Baptist minister.
Economic and national defense conservatives began to coalesce around Mr. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, as a movement leader about the time he quit the GOP presidential nomination race earlier this year.
On Friday at the summit, sponsored by Tony Perkins' Family Research Council, Mr. Huckabee also will be a no-show and will greet the audience by way of video only, while former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay may not show up at all because of hurricane-related flight delays, aides said.
Mr. Perkins has his admirers, but he and Mr. Romney look almost puny going up against Mrs. Palin - at least for now.
"The movement has a reasonably strong bench but no clearly identified leader coming from that bench right now," said Let Freedom Ring President Colin Hanna. "Tony Perkins is as close to being that next generation of leader as anyone."
Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly, conservative cause prompter Richard Viguerie and Free Congress Foundation President Paul M. Weyrich - all considered movement founders - each gave The Times the same two-word answer to the question about the emerging leader of the right: "Sarah Palin."
"None of the above names - Romney, Gingrich, Huckabee, DeLay - will be the conservative movement's leader in the coming years," Mr. Viguerie said. "Governor Palin's VP nomination is huge. It changes conservative, Republican and American politics for the next 20 years."
Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.
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