Sarah Palin, Donald Trump Attract Hype, but Share Few Policy Proposals

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"This election, Republican party takes this cycle as serious as a heart attack. This could be the most important election since 1980, in the minds of a lot of Republicans," Kaufman said. "They are going to demand and want and expect to have serious candidates give serious answers to serious policy questions and that will happen."

The one game-changer that has some Republicans nervous is the tea party influence. The conservative movement helped propel many lawmakers to power in 2010, and is expected to have a significant influence in next year's race.

But the tea party is fragmented and its members haven't been hesitant to separate themselves from the Republican establishment when needed. Last week, Nevada-based Western Representation PAC said it will specifically target Romney in New Hampshire because the former Massachusetts governor isn't conservative enough to represent conservatives.

The announcement came on the heels of rumblings from another influential tea party umbrella group, FreedomWorks, whose members have said they don't like Romney's record and are concerned about his ability to generate the kind of grassroots enthusiasm from conservative groups that helped bring Republicans to power in the House last year.

Romney is the only GOP candidate in the field thus far who, in a general-election trial heat in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, runs evenly with President Obama among all Americans, and numerically outpoints him, 49-46 percent, among registered voters.

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