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.
To date, each of those candidates have tread very carefully around Palin.
Romney recently praised her as "an extraordinarily powerful and effective voice in our party".
Gingrich called her a "formidable person in her own right" although cautioning Palin to "slow down" when it comes to her public pronouncements.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said Palin was "a heck of a lot smarter than she gets credit for."
The closest any of the major candidates has come to going negative on Palin is when Pawlenty said on "Good Morning America" that "it wouldn't have been my style" to put crosshairs on a 2010 election map as Palin's Sarah PAC did. (Some Democrats blamed Palin's "crosshairs map" for playing a role in the attempted assassination of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.) But, that's a pretty tame line of attack -- if it can even be considered a line of attack at all.
So, why haven't we seen more criticism of Palin from her bigger-name rivals?
One reason may be that they have made a calculation that it makes little sense to go after Palin -- and risk alienating her loyal supporters -- before she is even in the race.
The nightmare scenario for top-tier candidates is that they attack Palin, the attack turns her voters against them and then she doesn't run. The result? They look petty and have angered an element of the party they will need to win the nomination.
Rather than risk it, the top-tier candidates appear to be playing as nice as possible with Palin for as long as possible.
Of course, if she gets in the race, that calculation could well change. While people like Romney, Barbour and Daniels would likely be content to let people like Santorum go on a political kamikaze mission against Palin, it's hard to imagine that all of them could avoid engaging with her during the primary process.
Another reason for the lack of direct engagement at the moment could be that Palin is not regarded by some of these people as a major threat for the nomination even if she did run.
As Politico's Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin noted in a smart story Monday, Palin is not performing as a frontrunner would be expected to in early primary and caucus states -- suggesting she may not be nearly as formidable as she is made out to be.
Regardless of whether or not she runs, however, Palin will have an influence on the nomination fight by dint of her fame and the subsequent throw weight of her pronouncements via Facebook and Twitter.
Most of the top-tier candidates are eyeing her warily at the moment, waiting to see what she's up to before deciding the best way to approach her.
In the meantime, look for lesser known candidates to try and make their name by going at Palin. Will she engage them? Or ignore them?