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Power of endorsements difficult to gauge

Posted: September 20, 2011 10:58 a.m.
Updated: September 21, 2011 5:00 a.m.

In presidential politics, endorsements are a prize candidates seem to covet, but don’t necessarily need. On the rare occasion, however, a presidential backer can give a candidate that extra boost required to finish off the competition or a killer blow that eventually stymies a campaign. 

During the 2008 campaign, for instance, Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of then-Sen. Barack Obama, combined with her oodles of money and national recognition, undoubtedly helped him win the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton.

Conversely, President George W. Bush’s endorsement of Republican John McCain likely hurt the Arizona senator’s chances in the general election, especially with independent voters.

So who will play the king-makers and campaign destroyers in 2012?

A few notables from 2008 have already moved back into the limelight and endorsed candidates aiming to win the GOP nomination next year. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the first official candidate to drop out of the 2012 race, has already signed up with Mitt Romney’s campaign after being out of the running for only a few weeks.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was on McCain’s short list of potential vice presidents three years ago, has already thrown his support behind frontrunner Rick Perry.

While both of those endorsements may be able to sway some voters from one candidate to another, many of the big names in politics have so far decided to simply step back and watch.

Perhaps two of the most influential backers in the race come from the Palmetto State in Sen. Jim DeMint and Gov. Nikki Haley.

DeMint has already hosted his own debate in Columbia this year, the Palmetto Political Forum, to showcase the Republican candidates to S.C. voters. In 2008, he picked Romney, but this year may be different with his Tea Party brethren looking for a candidate with hard-core conservative credentials that Romney seems to lack.

Haley also has Tea Party support and perhaps as recognizable a profile as DeMint, which will allow the two to not only shore up support for a particular candidate, but also highlight South Carolina as one of the most important primary states for the Republican Party.

Haley certainly knows the importance of endorsements as well after former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin visited the state’s capital last year and helped her knock out her GOP rivals in the governor’s race.

Should Palin not jump in the 2012 race herself, she could provide the same boost from the sidelines for a candidate on the national stage. But much like Bush’s support for McCain in 2008, a Palin endorsement may be more of a curse than a blessing as her polarizing nature could hinder a candidate going up against Obama.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will also be a coveted endorser and has even been linked to talk surrounding a potential vice presidential pick. Would an endorsement from Rubio equal a slot on the ticket? That likely depends on the party’s nominee, but Rubio’s power rests in two important political areas -- geography and ethnicity. His backing would help the GOP’s nominee gain support from Latino voters and give a boost in the swing state of Florida.

The most important Republican endorsement, however, may be that of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Many GOP voters have already pushed for Christie to run for higher office, but by now it’s likely too late for the tough-talking Republican to become an official presidential candidate. His support will perhaps bring the biggest push as his profile is increasing and his appeal crosses over many of his party’s voters, including moderates and Tea Party-types.

A presidential endorsement, however, can sometimes backfire as much for the endorser as it does for the candidate. The dark horse in the race this year may be the front runner four years from now. Endorsers must keep two simple words in mind when they decide to make the splash into the realm of presidential politics -- choose wisely.   

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