The Fix: Who's attacking Palin and why

By Chris Cillizza
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 4:31 PM

After months of radio silence about the prospect of Sarah Palin running for president in 2012, a few of her potential rivals have begun to delicately jab at her, previewing what would almost certainly be a far more aggressive attack if she did decide to enter the race.

Last week, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum started a controversy by postulating in an online radio interview that Palin might be skipping the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) because "she has some demands on her time, and a lot of them have financial benefit attached to them." He added that Palin also has considerable responsibilities as a mother of five children.

While Santorum insisted that he was only saying Palin was busy and did not in any way mean to slight her, the former Alaska governor clearly took umbrage.

Palin said she would not call Santorum the "knuckle-dragging Neanderthal", adding "I'll let his wife call him that instead." Zing!

When came South Dakota Sen. John Thune's speech at CPAC in which he uttered the line: "The closest I've come to being on a reality TV show is C-SPAN's live coverage of the Senate floor."

While he never mentioned Palin's name, the audience "oohed" as soon as Thune mentioned a reality TV show -- a clear indication that they knew exactly who and what he was talking about.

For both Santorum and Thune, going after Palin -- whether intentionally, unintentionally or a somewhere in between -- is a smart political strategy.

It's the political equivalent of punching up; anytime a lesser known candidate takes a swing at a better known candidate -- and that better known candidate responds -- it's a victory for the little guy.

It's why long-shot challengers always call for debate against incumbents -- and why incumbents almost never agree to them.

But, Palin's demonstrated willingness to engage almost anyone -- literally -- who speaks ill of her virtually ensures that other lesser known candidates looking to make a name for themselves in the 2012 field will follow the Santorum/Thune route in the very near future.

It's a win-win situation for second and third tier candidates. Anything Palin-related draws a scrum of reporters (although, notably, not Dana Milbank) and those reporters inevitably write stories with a "Santorum vs Palin" or "Thune vs Palin" narrative -- a great dynamic for longer-shot candidates.

The real question moving forward is whether -- and how -- bigger name candidates like former Govs. Mitt Romney (Mass.) and Mike Huckabee (Ark.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) follow the lead of Santorum and Thune.

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