Nov. 4, 2010— -- Speculation about the 2012 presidential contest, especially as it relates to Sarah Palin, grew more intense almost as soon as polls closed on Tuesday, even with key midterm election races still to be decided.
Over the course of the 2010 campaign season, Palin solidified her role as one of the Republican Party's brightest stars, pulling dozens of candidates into her orbit through endorsements, public appearances, Facebook messages and tweets. The candidates the one-time Republican vice presidential nominee aided showed a mixed record of wins and losses on Election Day, but Palin accomplished much more than helping elect any individual candidate.
With every step she took on the campaign trail in 2010, Palin raised her profile and sparked endless conversation about her presidential ambitions. Still, political observers -- and even detractors within the Republican Party -- continue to question how serious she is about pursuing the nomination two years from now and whether she has the political muscle to take on President Obama.
"She's got a hell of a lot more qualifications than Barack Obama had when he ran for president," former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said on ABC's "The View" on Wednesday. "Let her run. If she's as bad as you think, she'll lose. If she can really make her case, she will win."
Giuliani was among the supporters who rushed to Palin's defense earlier this week after a Politico story quoted anonymous Republican sources who expressed concerns about whether the party would be best served with Palin as nominee in 2012.
Besides enjoying better name recognition than any other possible Republican presidential hopeful and a position of power within the newly-emboldened Tea Party movement, Palin now has something else going for her: a cadre of candidates she endorsed who soon will take office in key House, Senate and governor's seats and who are in Palin's debt.
Even some of the candidates on Palin's most-favored list who lost their races on Tuesday, such as Delaware's Christine O'Donnell and Nevada's Sharron Angle, could prove helpful to the former Alaska governor's presidential ambitions if they emerge as prominent figures within the GOP.
But Palin is by no means the only beneficiary of the Republican Party's sweeping electoral successes. Potential 2012 contenders Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and a handful of others also used the election season to travel to key states, supporting candidates and possibly lay the groundwork for their own presidential runs.
And many of them do not appear to be wasting any time.
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate, penned an op-ed article in the Washington Post on Wednesday chastising President Obama and offering a business-minded challenge for him to "turn his party's losses Tuesday into a win for the country."
"President Obama could have focused on solving the financial crisis. He did not. He could have endeavored to conquer the looming threats to our future. Instead, he added to them," Romney wrote in The Post. "Now that voters have rejected his first two years in office, the president should not waste this political crisis: He should seize his 'Nixon to China' opportunity."
Romney was one of the midterm season's most active campaigners, stumping for candidates in roughly 25 states in the last two months alone. Like Palin, he also gave generously to 2010 contenders through his political action committee.
Another ferocious campaigner in 2010, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, told ABC News on election night that the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives reflected a country full of "frustrated and worried" voters.
"They will send a message to President Obama by putting him in a headlock," Pawlenty said. "If he does not stop flailing, they will throw him out of the ring."
In the same interview, Pawlenty, who has been a frequent visitor to Iowa -- a key early caucus state -- speculated about how soon 2012 hopefuls would need to jump into the race.
"I think it probably varies by potential candidates," Pawlenty said. "Somebody like Sarah Palin, given how well-known she is and the ability she has, she could probably wait longer than people who are less well known." Though Pawlenty said he has not made a final decision about 2012, a too-close-to-call governor's race in Minnesota could potentially complicate matters for him should he decide to run. With only a few thousand votes separating Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer, the race could be headed toward a recount.
On Wednesday, Pawlenty pledged to stay on as governor if a winner was not declared in time for him to leave office next year, saying that "any of my personal plans or concerns are secondary."
Tuesday night was deja vu all over again for conservative leader Newt Gingrich, who helped orchestrate the Republican Revolution of 1994 and now is contemplating a presidential bid.
In an interview on Fox News, Gingrich characterized the party's gains as an "enormous wave," and "the biggest repudiation of a White House since 1932."
Some Republicans who are not as well-known on the national scene, but could have a shot at the party's presidential ticket in 2012, appeared to be sending subtle signals about their ambitions on Wednesday.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., a favorite among conservatives who won a presidential straw poll this summer at the annual Values Voter Summit, announced on Wednesday that he was stepping down from his position as House Republican Conference chairman. It's a sign that Pence may be eyeing a presidential run, or possibly, a bid for governor of his state.
In Indiana, where Republicans seized control of the state legislature, another one of the GOP's rising stars, Gov. Mitch Daniels, celebrated victory on Tuesday night, declaring, "Indiana has stepped out ahead of the pack in the past two years, and we are going to extend that lead."
But it is very likely that all of the Republican heavyweights who are itching for the chance to take on President Obama two years from now will be watching Palin's every move more closely than any of their other counterparts.
Palin indicated she may be ready to take on all comers -- Democrat or Republican.
"Very clear message to Pres Obama: We'll send our representatives to D.C. to stop your fundamental transformation of America," Palin tweeted, adding later: "Boxing gloves needed for what is ahead."