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posted: 10/11/2011 5:00 AM

The die is cast, the fight is on

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Former GOP vice-presidential candidate and Fox News contributor Sarah Palin has finally decided not to run for president. Now the race begins.

As long as the dynamic and media-savvy Palin remained a possible GOP candidate, a shadow hung over each of the declared candidates -- none of whom can match her skills or ability to excite conservative voters.

Palin has a star quality that the existing Republican contenders still lack -- an undisputed ability to attract voters, inspire them to action, and define (via oversimplification) the issues.

Polls show Republicans are underwhelmed by the choices currently available to them, even from a generous crop of experienced candidates. Establishment and mainstream conservatives have spent considerable time and energy courting a new or more flamboyant candidate who will appeal to swing voters next fall. So far, they have failed to get some of the most experienced candidates to jump into the fray.

The GOP establishment in and around Washington, D.C., was never enamored with Palin because, in part, she didn't need her party's support or advice in order to build up a large movement. Now Palin will play a major role in anointing a nominee she likes.

And make no mistake, Palin intends to make her weight felt in the selection of a candidate. Her noncandidate status will only increase her positives with Republican voters. Expect Palin to continue to re-brand the modern Republican Party that will become ultra-ultra-conservative, and perhaps too hot for independent voters next year.

The Republicans are at a point where there are no longer any contenders waiting in the wings to ride to the rescue. Nor is there time now for a newcomer to mount a serious race and get on the ballot, unless he or she declares as an independent.

It's ironic that when so many are declaring Obama vulnerable, those with the best chance of beating him have taken a pass on the 2012 race: Palin, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are a few who come to mind.

Now, the Republican establishment -- composed primarily of nonelected donors like the Koch brothers, political strategists like Karl Rove and former GOP chairman Ed Gillespie, legislative leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, and Majority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor -- will have to choose someone already in the race like Mitt Romney or Rick Perry.

With months to go before voters caucus in their living rooms or in church basements on a cold night in Iowa, it looks like the tea party movement has the edge in determining who will win the GOP nomination. Within the Republican Party there is a deep fissure that will help determine who is nominated. It is a split that cannot be healed because one side will not compromise.

While all this is going on, President Obama will be out on the campaign trail trying to strengthen his support with those who voted for him in 2008, as well as appealing to independents who have abandoned him and the Democrats in droves. But like the Republican Party, which got hammered in 2006 and 2008, don't count President Obama out.

Obama is resilient, and his personal approval, while slipping, is still ahead of where he is on the economy. Although he is not going to be lifted by a rising economy any time soon, President Obama has made the long overdue shift from trying to get bipartisan cooperation to a message that tells voters that the GOP cares more about taking his job than creating jobs for them.

In short, the American political system is still in disarray. The two sides are further apart than ever. So we're waiting for a real game-changer. For now, each side believes that being that far from the other side merely confirms that they are right.

Next year, we can all have our say. I cannot wait.

$PHOTOCREDIT_ON$ 2011, United Feature Syndicate Inc.$PHOTOCREDIT_OFF$

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