They are the sideshows of the Republican presidential campaign.
While Republicans such as Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul craft broad visions for governing and do the work that could set up a real presidential campaign, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump appear to be using the tease of a presidential campaign as much or more to market themselves for their own TV reality shows as for any genuine campaign.
“I don’t think anyone takes them seriously as candidates,” said Kevin Hall, an Iowa Republican commentator. “They remain popular with some conservatives, but I don’t think anyone believes they will run for president.”
What worries Republicans eager to field a 2016 winner is that Palin and Trump do have potential political followings, and the longer they draw TV coverage and speaking slots by saying they’re thinking of running, the longer they draw attention from the candidates actually building campaigns to take on likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Palin remains a popular force in the conservative tea party movement. Trump’s camp noted he has been at numerous political events in the last two years and has been a frequent contributor to candidates.
Activists counter they see no signs that Palin or Trump are serious about really running.
By contrast, four presidential hopefuls were in California last weekend building support and talking to the donors who would be important to finance a campaign. Sens. Cruz of Texas, Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida debated the nuances of foreign policy at a retreat of donors hosted by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin also showed up to speak with donors.
At the same time, Bush, the former Florida governor, and 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney have been working the phones hard, calling potential donors and supporters.
After a Saturday event in Iowa, several candidates spent hours or days working off camera.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania met last week for four hours with top aides and then began a five-day tour of Iowa. Paul last year hosted a fundraiser for Iowa Republican Chairman Jeff Kauffman’s son Bobby, a state legislator. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas made four stops in Iowa this weekend. Former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas made several stops.
Palin and Trump went back to entertainment.
On “Celebrity Apprentice,” host Trump fired crab boat captain Sig Hansen and mom and reality TV icon Kate Gosselin.
Palin’s TV turn comes Thursday. This week’s guest on “Amazing America with Sarah Palin” is singer Ted Nugent, who last year called President Barack Obama a “Chicago communist-raised, communist-educated, communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel.”
“Ted gives Sarah bow lessons,” promises the promo for the Sportsman Channel show.
Palin and Trump made their latest splash Saturday with nine other potential Republican candidates at the Iowa Freedom Summit, billed as the kickoff for the state’s first-in-the-nation 2016 presidential caucus. They’re also invited to the March 7 Iowa Ag Summit, the next such major state forum.
Organizers say they’re obligated to invite any prominent Republican thinking of a presidential bid. Two dozen potential candidates have been invited to the Ag Summit, including Democrats Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden.
“This gives people a chance to hear where people stand on federal farm subsidies or soil conservation and modern agriculture,” said event spokesman Eric Woolson. “I don’t think they would know where Sarah Palin stands. Same with Mr. Trump.”
The Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition hosts its spring kickoff April 25. Trump has been invited, but not Palin. Coalition president Steve Scheffler said Trump has shown he is a potentially serious candidate.
Palin’s SarahPAC did not respond to requests for details about a possible run. Scheffler, who is also the state’s Republican National Committeeman, recalled how last fall she appeared at a coalition banquet: “She was on the stage and off. There was no mingling with the crowd.”
Indeed, there’s no evidence she’s doing the offstage work a candidate does when the cameras are off.
“She still has a great reservoir of support among conservatives and tea party activists,” said Virginia-based conservative consultant Keith Appell. But, he added, “I have not seen any of the kind of grassroots or granular outreach like others are doing.”
Trump has been active as a speaker and financial contributor. His office said that since 2013, he has spoken at more than 15 political events, and last year visited Iowa to help the campaign of Rep. Steve King, a chief organizer of Saturday’s summit. He also recorded robocalls for two other campaigns outside Iowa. Earlier this month he keynoted the South Carolina Tea Party convention.
“Mr. Trump participates in political events to advance his goal to make America great again,” said spokeswoman Hope Hicks.
Trump and Palin have teased before.
In 1999, Trump briefly courted the Reform Party, an offshoot of businessman Ross Perot’s independent movement. In 2011, the New York real estate magnate finally announced he would not really actually run when he had to pick between a campaign and “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Saturday, he got headlines telling the Iowa summit that Romney “choked” in 2012 and Bush is “very, very weak” on immigration. Everyone got Trump keepsakes, pictures of him with President Ronald Reagan, and a photo of his 1959 church confirmation class.
Iowa politicos were unimpressed. “Donald Trump is doing his tease with the public and media,” said Will Rogers, the Republican chairman in Polk County, the state’s largest.
Palin toyed with a bid in 2011, finally announcing she would not run after dismal poll numbers – a Washington Post-ABC News poll said two-thirds of Republicans didn’t want her to run. Palin continued her career as a Fox News commentator and cable TV show host.
Her team did eagerly promote her Saturday forum appearance, but her speech was criticized by conservatives.
“Her seriousness as a public servant versus public personality . . . was reflected in her rambling, stream-of-consciousness speech,” wrote columnist Kathleen Parker. “Sad.”
“More than a few GOP loyalists came away shaking their heads at the performance of . . . Palin, whose long, rambling, and at times barely coherent speech left some wondering what role she should play in Republican politics as the 2016 race begins in earnest,” wrote analyst Byron York.
TheIowaRepublican’s Craig Robinson labeled the speech “long and incoherent.”
Scheffler didn’t see serious presidential aspirations here. “She has her zingers,” he said. “But I would need to see more serious talk.”