Mitt Romney, by way of example, is doing what potential presidential candidates do at this stage. He travels the country raising money for Republican Party committees and Republican candidates; he raises money through his Free and Strong America PAC, and doles it out to candidates and party committees; and he appears on mainstream news shows to speak about national issues of the day.
That's basically a marketing campaign targeted to the Republican Party establishment — the moneyed interests and beltway insiders — which is still a huge key to winning the party's nomination, says Andrea Campbell, political-science professor at MIT.
Meanwhile, Romney has steered clear of the pitchforks-and-populism base, which tends to make the party-establishment crowd queasy. They want someone like Romney, who skips the "Tea Party" protests to glad-hand with elites paying $1000 a plate.
But if that is the path to the White House, it may not be compatible with becoming queen of the conservative donors. The angry, dedicated base who respond to direct-mail entreaties are looking for someone who demonizes David Gregory and George Stephanopoulos, not someone who chats amiably with them on Sunday mornings.
Which helps explain why the lists of Romney contributors don't command the premium of the presidential candidates he walloped, like, immigrant-bashing former congressman Tom Tancredo.
That's also why some who see Palin as a strong candidate hope she remains a politician, not a brand.
That's the advice of Phillips. "There's no question she's got a bright future" down either path, says Phillips. But activities like running a direct-mail-driven conservative organization, he says, "would diminish the extent of her appeal."
Truth is, the GOP establishment might never warm to Palin, even if she does as they want and disappears for a while to study up on economic and foreign-policy details. Renegades bucking the establishment may historically have a chance in the Democratic Party — including both Clinton and Obama — but not in the GOP.
"Palin is very popular among social conservatives," says Campbell, "not the other parts of the Republican coalition." And that's not to mention the centrists who decide the general election, even if she did win the Republican nomination.
Palin has already showed signs that she has seen her path, and it doesn't include sucking up to the GOP establishment. Not that she will leave the party — she's just making it clear that the Palin brand is separate from the party brand. And she's going to do what's best for her.
In fact, she did not utter the word "Republican" once in her 20-minute resignation speech — in which she pointedly mentioned that she would support candidates from any party. In later interviews, she avoided speaking of the Republican Party as though she was part of it: referring to the GOP as "it" or "they," not "we."
Palin's celebrity status was granted by the Republican establishment, when it plucked her from obscurity last August. But she has never been part of that world. In 2012, ever more comfortable with her lucrative lifestyle, look for her on the National Review cruise, not the Iowa caucuses.
To read the "Talking Politics" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/talkingpolitics. David S. Bernstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.