Are Republicans Beginning to Waver in Their Deference Toward Sarah Palin?

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When the television host and former Florida congressman Joe Scarborough published a scathing op-ed piece in Politico against Sarah Palin on Tuesday, he was not only trying to put a dent in her presidential ambitions. He was also encouraging Republicans to break what has largely been a vow of silence among GOP leaders when it comes to criticizing her.

"The same leaders who fret that Sarah Palin could devastate their party in 2012 are too scared to say in public what they all complain about in private," wrote Scarborough, the host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "Enough. It's time for the GOP to man up."

Scarborough joined other prominent conservative columnists and political strategists, including Peggy Noonan and Karl Rove, who have raised questions about Palin's presidential prospects, but his comments also show how rare it is for influential Republicans say anything less than polite about her.

Even Rove, who has voiced criticism of the former Alaska governor in the past, has recently showed signs of softening. In an appearance on Fox News last week, he said that Palin's decision to make several stops in Iowa while on tour for her new book was a wise choice.

"She's going to make three stops out of 16 stops on her book tour -- three stops are going to be in the state of Iowa," Rove said. "That's a pretty smart move if you're thinking about running for president."

It's unclear whether Scarborough's blunt assessment of Palin's "dopey dream" (his words) of running for president will embolden other prominent Republicans to deliver similar assessments. But at least as far as the field of potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates is concerned, almost everyone is practicing good manners -- especially when it comes to Palin.

The civility goes both ways.

In her new book, "America By Heart," Palin spends several pages lavishing praise on Mitt Romney for his 2007 speech about faith, which, in Palin's estimation, was far better than John F. Kennedy's famous address on Catholicism during the 1960 presidential campaign.

"Unlike JFK, who essentially declared religion to be such a private matter that it was irrelevant to the kind of country we are, Romney declared that our religious liberty is 'fundamental to America's greatness,'" Palin wrote, adding later, "where Kennedy seemed to want to run away from religion, Mitt Romney forthrightly embraced it."

Romney, the once and possibly future GOP presidential contender and former governor of Massachusetts, responded in kind, tweeting last week: "Thanks @SarahPalinUSA for the kind words in your book about the role of faith in public life. Hope it's a bestseller."

In a recent interview on ABC's "The View," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, also a potential 2012 presidential contender, commended Palin for her "sophisticated critique of the Federal Reserve."

"She may surprise some people," Gingrich said.

Speaking to reporters in Iowa last month, another potential 2012 GOP candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, predicted that Palin "will be a very, very strong presence and force, if she gets in." In fact, he said, "she may run away with it."

But Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses as a presidential candidate, added that if he decides to give the presidency another shot, he would prefer Palin stay out.

The deference among the possible Republican presidential hopefuls is not entirely surprising -- no candidate has officially entered the race, so there's no real reason to start a fight. But it is also a reflection of Palin's growing following among the GOP grassroots and the Tea Party, as well as the threat her media juggernaut could pose, whether or not she becomes the party's nominee.

Palin, of course, is not the only beneficiary of the unofficial detente among most members of the not-yet-declared 2012 field. In a joint appearance earlier this spring, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a likely presidential candidate, called Mitt Romney a "wise," "smart," and "effective" leader.

"He has served our state and nation really well," Pawlenty said at a speech in Minneapolis in April.

For his part, Romney campaigned this year with South Dakota Sen. John Thune, whose name has also been tossed into the presidential rumor mill. And Romney, Pawlenty and Huckabee all were there for Gingrich's election-night party in November.

All the friendly appearances and niceties will no doubt seem downright tame six months or a year from now, when many of these Republicans are likely to be in the midst of a scrappy fight for the GOP nomination. And although Republicans may be walking on egg shells around Palin, in particular, Scarborough's op-ed points to deep divisions within the party about the wisdom of choosing her as the nominee.

More of those doubts are starting to surface.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a rising GOP star who some have mentioned as a long-shot 2012 contender, alluded to his own concerns, albeit subtly, during an appearance on NBC's "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" last week.

"Do you think Sarah Palin could do it?" Fallon asked Christie.

"Well, you know, who knows, Jimmy?" he replied. "It's an amazing world."