By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010; A01
You might think that no sensible Republican with presidential ambitions would wander into a blood feud within the party. This year, you would be wrong. The likely contenders for the 2012 GOP nomination have been sprinkling their marquee-worthy endorsements in an unusually large number of bitter primary contests across the country.
In Florida, for instance, Mitt Romney this week joined past -- and possibly future -- presidential rivals Mike Huckabee and Rudolph W. Giuliani aboard the increasingly crowded bandwagon of Senate candidate and "tea party" favorite Marco Rubio. That's looking like a safe bet: The former Florida House speaker has amassed a lead so formidable in the GOP primary that Gov. Charlie Crist, the early favorite, might ditch his party and run as an independent in November.
This is turning out to be a year when any association with Washington and the political establishment can be toxic. And that's reversing the old calculus that primary endorsements unnecessarily create enemies. In such a climate, says longtime strategist John Weaver, wading into the fray can be "a pretty smart play" for presidential candidates trying to demonstrate their throw-the-bums-out bona fides. So far, their endorsements have kicked up dust in GOP primaries from Kentucky and South Carolina to Indiana and New York.
That potential presidential contenders are so eager to associate themselves with the rage bubbling up from the grass roots suggests that they expect a 2012 nomination race different from the GOP's standard, establishment-driven coronation. The endorsement derby is "a case study, I think, of the most wide-open Republican nominating contest since 1964 -- maybe ever," says veteran operative Ralph Reed, who now heads a conservative grass-roots organization called the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
Typically, endorsements bring stature and donations to the candidates who receive them. This year, it sometimes appears that the politicians looking to burnish their reputations are the ones bestowing their support. As one strategist for a much-mentioned 2012 contender put it: "With some of these things, it's more an effort to communicate who you are, where you come from and where you stand."
A well-timed endorsement can also put a future presidential candidate's name into the media spotlight for a news cycle or two and light up the political blogosphere. However, taking sides in primaries is not without peril. If your candidate loses, you open yourself to payback from the winner. That explains, for instance, why Rubio's list of high-profile endorsers didn't start growing until his lead in the polls did.Palin's plugs
None of the leading potential 2012 contenders has been as aggressive at the endorsement game as Sarah Palin, who has helped two dozen candidates so far. She got out of the box early when she backed Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman over more moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava in the hotly contested special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District last fall. The resulting civil war on the right drove the Republican from the race and helped hand the seat to the Democrats.
More recently, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee raised eyebrows in the GOP hierarchy when she gave her benediction to Rand Paul, the tea party candidate who is threatening to sink establishment pick Trey Grayson in Kentucky's Senate primary. Paul has said, among other things, that the federal government should not have a role in drug enforcement and that he would have voted against the Iraq war.
For a potential presidential candidate who is still trying to build a national reputation, the calculation of when and how to jump into a primary battle is not so clear cut. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, for instance, also supported the Conservative Party candidate in the New York special election. But when he rolled out a slate of seven 2010 endorsements in late March, he stuck to primary races that are either uncontested or thought to be foregone conclusions. On the other hand, Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) has in recent days endorsed conservative antiestablishment Senate candidates in Indiana and Colorado, fueling speculation that he, too, has his eye on a 2012 bid.Midterm testing ground
Presidential aspirants have long used the midterm season to hone their campaign skills and build their political networks. Richard Nixon famously hit the trail in the 1966 congressional elections to accumulate chits and position himself as the front-runner for his comeback in 1968.
And there have been occasions when candidates have inserted themselves into intraparty fights. In 1978, Ronald Reagan contributed $3,000 and taped a radio commercial for former Odessa, Tex., mayor Jim Reese, who was running in a congressional primary against an upstart named George W. Bush. Reagan's gambit was a rare enough move that it ticked off Bush's father, a Reagan rival, who told The Washington Post: "I am surprised about what he is doing here, in my state." (Although Bush got the nomination, he lost in November.)
Personal feelings could play a role in some of this year's endorsement decisions as well. Giuliani and Romney, for instance, have not forgotten how Crist's last-minute Florida primary endorsement helped John McCain clinch the GOP nomination in 2008; indeed, Giuliani thought he had a deal for Crist to back him. That's all "ancient history," the former New York mayor said as he endorsed Rubio a couple of weeks ago. Nonetheless, Giuliani couldn't resist another airing of his grievance against Crist: "He did break his word to me. He shook my hand and told me he'd support me, and he didn't."
Then again, there can be another side of that equation. Some Republicans were mystified by Romney's decision in March to back Nikki Haley, a South Carolina state representative, in the governor's race there. Those close to Romney note that she was one of the few prominent South Carolina Republicans to stand with him in that state's presidential primary two years ago. But Haley's a long shot in a four-way primary. It may turn out that Romney hasn't done himself any favors with the ultimate winner in a crucial primary state.