My advice to Sarah Palin, not that she would take it, is that she’d better be careful. If she keeps pretending to run for the presidential nomination, people might take her seriously.

The former half-term Alaska governor’s “One Nation” bus tour has made the Republican establishment nervous. If her aim is just to get back in the news, reinflate the Palin brand and boost her speaking fees, then party leaders have every reason to be pleased. In the unlikely event that she’s actually running, they have every reason to order another Scotch.

What the GOP should worry about is the intoxication that adoring crowds often induce in politicians. Palin might board the bus intending to pull a Trump and disembark convinced that now, more than ever, the nation requires her service. The hosannas ringing in her ears might deafen her to voices of reason.

Odds are it won’t happen. But the fact that Palin’s ego trip so easily stole the spotlight from the actual Republican candidates shows what a challenge the party faces in trying to deny President Obama a second term.

Poor Tim Pawlenty was trying to roll out his candidacy, and every interviewer wanted to ask what he thought of Palin. This was his introduction to the American people — those who don’t live in Minnesota, where he was governor for eight years — and he obviously wanted to come off as bold and decisive. He charged, for example, that Obama has been too timid in committing U.S. forces to military action in Libya.

But Pawlenty, like the other candidates, had to be polite when asked about Palin because her followers can be passionate and unforgiving. By Friday, he was clearly exasperated. “Who knows? I don’t know if she’s running or not,” he said on MSNBC. “We need to quit worrying about polls and bus tours and get onto the issue of how we’re going to fix the country and get the country back on track.”

Then again, that “fix the country” issue wasn’t working all that well, either. Last Tuesday, in a special election, Republicans lost a safe congressional seat in Upstate New York because of their candidate’s support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, which would transform Medicare into a voucher program. On Wednesday, Pawlenty spent most of the day trying to avoid saying whether or not he supported the Ryan plan.

Finally, he said that if he were president, he would sign the Ryan budget. But that was moot, he said, because he had his own plan for Medicare. But he wasn’t ready to release his plan. But it would offer lots and lots of choices. And could we talk some more about Libya?

Meanwhile, Pawlenty’s fellow Minnesotan, Rep. Michele Bachmann, pretty much confirmed that she’s about to declare her candidacy. She scheduled a speech about her presidential plans for sometime in June in Waterloo, Iowa, where she was born. It just happens, of course, that the Iowa caucuses are the first contest of the primary season. But is it a good idea to launch a campaign of conquest in a place called Waterloo?

Bachmann’s entry would ensure a plethora of lazy, unambitious news stories comparing her to Palin — stories with an unfair and sexist “catfight” subtext. Each deserves to be evaluated in her own right, as just one of many unpromising potential GOP candidates, male and female, who allow Democratic strategists to sleep well at night.

Let’s see, Newt Gingrich is still in the race, though it’s doubtful the party will ever forgive him for being right about the “radical” Ryan plan for Medicare. There’s businessman Herman Cain, who’s now polling better than Pawlenty. There’s Rick Santorum and Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman and . . . Hello? Did you nod off?

This bleak panorama boosts the chances of Mitt Romney, who has to be considered the clear front-runner. He has the money, the experience, the hair, the smile — he looks and sounds like a presidential candidate, which is more than can be said of the competition.

Romney hasn’t been in the headlines recently, and this would normally be considered a bad sign for a candidate. But the way his opponents are self-
destructing, I’d advise him to remain in a secure, undisclosed location until next year’s GOP convention — and if Palin’s bus should happen to drive past his hideout, just wave.

Eugene Robinson will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions or comments before or during the discussion.