With just five days to go before New York's 23rd District holds a special election for its open congressional seat, the conventional wisdom is that the race will end up outlining the soul and direction of the Republican Party.
Such is the case due to the fact that most of the major conservative figures, Senate and presidential candidates have flocked to back the Conservative Party's Doug Hoffman, while the party establishment (and noticeable others such as Newt Gingrich) stick by Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava.
But for Democrats, the desired frame in NY-23 is far narrower. Progressive interest groups, the party's campaign apparatus and even high-ranked strategists have all fought to make the race a referendum on the country's most widely-discussed, out-of-work former pol: Sarah Palin.
In the past week at least three separate solicitations have been blasted out to Democratic voters urging them to open their pockets and donate to Democratic candidate Bill Owens, in order to preempt a 'Palin-boost.' Palin endorsed Hoffman via Facebook just days ago.
On Wednesday, MoveOn.org warned that a "bizarre House race in upstate New York could end up giving a big national boost to Sarah Palin and the far right."
"Here's how," the group wrote, in an email asking for contributions for Owens. "In a three-way race, Doug Hoffman, a right-wing third party candidate, has gotten Sarah Palin's endorsement and become a cause celebre for the far-right fringe."
The day before the MoveOn email went out, longtime strategist Paul Begala authored a fundraising solicitation of his own for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee headlined "Going Rogue" -- a reference to the title of Palin's forthcoming book and homage to the subversive role she reportedly played during the McCain campaign.
On Wednesday afternoon, meanwhile, the DCCC posted a message on its Facebook page (which, it should be noted, is the nearly-exclusive medium of communication for Palin these days) portraying the former governor as a massive conservative fundraising force.
"Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh are all supporting the 3rd-party right-wing candidate in next week's upstate NY special election. In fact, after Palin's endorsement, the "tea party" candidate raised over $116,000."
It's as if Hoffman -- a relatively obscure accountant from a Lake Placid -- has come to personally symbolize the viability of Palin's long-term political ambitions.
Of course, the series of Palin-centered solicitations are more grounded in near-term electoral strategy than preparation for 2012. Democratic strategists would like nothing more than to make her the face of the NY23 election, especially when considering how toxic her brand currently is. The 2008 vice presidential candidate is seem as qualified for the White House by a scant 29 percent of Americans in a recent NBC/WSJ poll. Only 26 percent of Americans have a positive response to Palin, according to the same poll, versus 42 percent who regard her suspiciously.
"Palin epitomizes the things that America's political middle doesn't like about the GOP," said Phil Singer, a Democratic political consultant who worked at the DSCC and on the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. "It's a no-brainer to force Republican candidates to embrace someone like Palin whose strength is derived from the most extreme part of the party. The more GOP candidates stick with her, the more the party's obsolete brand sticks to them."
In the end, another strategist explained, Palin and Democrats have parallel goals. While the former Alaska Govenor strives to maintain political relevance, her opponents are more than willing to oblige -- eager to elevate her standing within Republican politics if it means tarnishing the candidates she touches.