By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2010; A02
Sarah Palin appears to be building a pack of "mama grizzlies" in the 2010 elections that could send a powerful political message if she decides to run for president in 2012.
In the past 10 days, Palin has thrown her endorsement behind former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina, who is running for the Republican Senate nomination in California; state Rep. Nikki Haley, a candidate for governor in South Carolina; and Susana Martinez, the Dona Ana County district attorney seeking the GOP nod in the New Mexico governor's race.
"This year will be remembered as the year that common-sense conservative women get things done for our country," the former Alaska governor said Friday in a speech to the Susan B. Anthony List, a political group opposed to abortion. "The mama grizzlies, they rise up."
All three of the races in which Palin endorsed feature a female candidate running against one -- or several -- men. In California, Fiorina, who has put more than $3 million of her own money into the race, is trying to run down former congressman Tom Campbell before the state's June 8 primary. In South Carolina, Haley, the one-time protege of disgraced Gov. Mark Sanford, faces three men -- Rep. Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and state Attorney General Henry McMaster -- in the Palmetto State's June 8 primary. And in New Mexico, Martinez is locked in a tough battle with free-spending former state party chairman Allen Weh.
(Palin is also casting other major issues through the female prism. In a Facebook note -- natch! -- last week, she protested the decision by an Illinois school superintendent to keep a high school girls basketball team from attending a tournament in Arizona because of the state's new immigration law. "Let's help the girls 'go rogue' and go play ball," Palin wrote to her online supporters.)
Palin, by wading into this trio of primaries to back female candidates, seems to be casting the 2010 elections as the year of the Republican woman -- she spoke of an "emerging conservative feminist identity" in her Susan B. Anthony List speech.
To date, Republicans have struggled to elevate female faces in their ranks. Of the 17 women in the Senate, four are Republicans; 17 of the 76 women in the House are Republicans. There are three female Republican governors. (Worth noting: Palin would have been the fourth but resigned last summer, well before her term was to be up at the end of this year.)
Dana Perino, who was White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, said: "Republican women are woefully underrepresented in Congress, and so any encouragement they can get is important. Sarah Palin, regardless of whether you support her policy approach, should get respect from everyone for picking herself back up every time someone took a shot -- which is like 22 times a day."
Palin's strong support for female candidates in 2010 could accrue to her benefit if she decides to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. She would almost assuredly be the only prominent woman in the race, a significant position of strength if she could rally Republican women behind her the way that Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to inspire Democratic women in 2008 with the chance to cast their first vote for a female presidential candidate.
According to exit-poll data, women made up 44 percent of the voters in the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses, 43 percent in the New Hampshire primary and 49 percent in the South Carolina primary. Eight years earlier, those figures were 46 percent in Iowa, 43 percent in New Hampshire and 50 percent in South Carolina.
The numbers suggest that if Palin could attract the support of a significant chunk of Republican women in the three earliest-voting states of the presidential nominating process, she would be at or near the top of a crowded field of -- you guessed it -- men.
A Palin presidential bid is far from a sure thing, with even those close to her acknowledging that she hasn't made up her mind about running. But if she does decide to run, her emphasis on helping elect women in 2010 may well be seen as a foundational pillar of Palin's national bid.