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Sarah Palin: Angle with lipstick

A high-stakes Nevada race with a national profile. A flawed, damaged candidate who’s immensely popular with the tea party set — and the re-election salvation for the wounded incumbent Democrat.

Did Nevada’s Republican voters learn anything about electability when they nominated Sharron Angle to take on Democratic Sen. Harry Reid? They might get a chance to redeem themselves in February 2012 — or repeat their mistake — when Nevada’s early presidential caucus returns the national political spotlight to Las Vegas.

For once the GOP’s aspiring challengers to Barack Obama start stumping in the Silver State next fall, Sarah Palin will be the second coming of Sharron Angle.

In a Republican presidential field expected to include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, retiring Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Palin could very well take more Nevada delegates than any of them — which would delight Democrats everywhere.

Palin has spent so much time boosting her profile this fall that it’s hard to imagine her staying out of the race. John McCain’s Hail-Mary running mate in 2008 has become a reality TV star with TLC’s “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” On Monday, her media machine released another sure-fire best-selling book, “America by Heart,” which reads like a series of campaign attacks on Obama.

It isn’t a coincidence that her book tour has already hit Iowa, the first stop in the 2012 nomination process. Reports say her aides have been hunting for office space in the state and laying the groundwork for a significant amount of political outreach.

If Palin runs, she’ll have to establish an immediate presence in Nevada as well. The former Alaska governor is the only Western candidate among the GOP’s perceived presidential front-runners, and Nevada is the only Western state at the front end of the nomination calendar. The Nevada caucus will be held Feb. 18, 2012, 12 days after Iowa’s caucus and just four days after the New Hampshire primary.

Nevada is practically Palin’s home turf when compared with the cultures and demographics of Iowa and New Hampshire. If she doesn’t do well here, there’s no reason to think her campaign would survive into the spring.

But she’ll be traveling a state with fresh memories of Angle, the tea-party darling who charmed the GOP’s base but was thoroughly unappealing to moderates of all stripes.

The two women aren’t merely linked — they’re practically handcuffed to each other. Palin endorsed Angle and gave her money. Palin is the unquestioned queen of the tea party movement, which helped drive Angle’s primary victory over establishment Republican candidate Sue Lowden. Their politics are nearly identical: freedom-loving Christian conservatives who want to take an ax to government spending. They preach faith and resiliency.

In many ways, comparing Palin to Angle is totally unfair. Palin is the GOP’s only pop-culture icon, a near rock star who can bring crowds of thousands of people to their feet. She’s polished behind a lectern, looks fantastic on camera and delivers conservative talking points with confidence. She has led a state and subjected herself to the kind of scrutiny and ridicule that would make a drill sergeant break down and weep. She gets good laughs making fun of herself.

Angle, by contrast, comes across as an amateur-hour flunkey. She doesn’t gravitate toward the media spotlight — she sprints from it.

However, just as the election results from Nov. 2 proved Angle wasn’t ready for prime time, the 2008 campaign exposed Palin as someone woefully unprepared to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, let alone be president. Spending two years leading a publicity bandwagon isn’t improving Palin’s resume.

Palin and Angle illustrate a frustrating contradiction in American politics. Voters everywhere express disgust and distrust of career politicians and the legion of smooth talkers in public office, then claim they want more regular people leading government. But when those Average Joes and Janes step into the ring, they’re savaged for stumbling in interviews and not understanding “the process.”

In that regard, Palin and Angle have been easy marks for mainstream television journalists in search of a trophy. And that’s never going to change, no matter how many times they run for office.

The lesson to take away from the losses these women suffered is that, yes, there is a place for folksy outsiders in American politics. But they have a ceiling.

Voters have set a higher standard for the highest offices in the land. Sharron Angle isn’t congressional timber. Sarah Palin is not someone voters are going to put in the White House.

Do you think Romney would have allowed Katie Couric — Katie Couric! — to make a fool out of him on national television? Gingrich? Not a chance.

Angle was the one candidate Reid could beat. Palin is the Republican candidate Obama fears least.

We’ll be seeing a lot of Palin soon enough. But when she gets here, I won’t see a mama grizzly. I’ll see Sharron Angle — with lipstick.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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