WASHINGTON -- Sarah Palin has just proven again that she has only one gear -- forward -- and only one mode -- attack.
The 2012 presidential campaign has begun, not in Iowa or New Hampshire, but in the bloody streets of Tucson.
On Monday, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a mild-mannered character and first out of the chute in the race for the Republican nomination, dared to question -- mildly and by implication -- the harsh rhetorical tactics of the rootin'-tootin' Annie Oakley of the North.
There is no "evidence" of a link between such rhetoric and the actions of Jared Lee Loughner, Pawlenty stressed, "but it would not have been my style" to have published -- as Palin did -- a rifle crosshairs map of House districts held by vulnerable Democrats.
After a litany of other Republicans, from Roger Ailes to Ari Fleischer, suggested that calmer rhetoric is warranted in the aftermath of Tucson, Palin -- after remaining essentially silent for three days -- amped up the rhetoric in a pointed counterattack, accusing "journalists and pundits" of manufacturing a "blood libel" against her by suggesting that she somehow is to blame for the toxic political atmosphere in Arizona.
There are few more freighted phrases in the history of hate than "blood libel," which is the ancient and false accusation that Jews secretly murder Christian children as part of their religious rituals. This anti-Semitic attack has resulted in countless pogroms and massacres through the ages.
Saint Sarah, it seems, is now comparing herself to one of those martyrs.
Notably absent was any second-guessing of a single word or action of her own over the last two years. To do so, apparently, would mean to somehow accept the premise that the "lamestream media" is worthy of attention. As far as she is concerned, they don't exist -- except for the sake of being likened to pillaging Cossacks. (The comparison is not only over-the-top, it's also insensitive, given that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is Jewish.)
After his initial remarks, Pawlenty spent a day dialing back -- but not totally abandoning his criticisms of her "style."
The long-distance Pawlenty-Palin exchange was, in faint outline, the pattern of the GOP campaign to come. Palin, whether she runs or not, will set the baseline of combat for Republican candidates.
Anybody less harsh than she is will be, by her standards, a wimp, and giving in to the assumptions and storylines of the lamestream.
On the other hand, taking on Palin is a guaranteed way to get attention. For Republican candidates, it would be shrewd as a general election strategy -- and even as a primary-season one, depending on the shape of the race.
No sooner had Pawlenty made his remarks then he was attacked on conservative blogs. His statement was "weak tea (no pun intended)," said Stephen Green of PajamasMedia, "and this is the exact wrong time to make even the smallest concession to the lefty narrative."
The other likely GOP candidates and their staffs are watching this mini-skirmish for signs of which way to run -- or hide. The silence of the others, so far, has been noticeable.
The others, echoing remarks by GOP super-strategist Karl Rove, say she can't win the presidency, and that she would be a disaster if she did.
They also think that her chances of winning the Republican nomination are fading -- though they are by no means gone -- and are of mixed opinion about whether to dare risk criticizing her in any way.
Some candidates -- Mitt Romney, for example -- might want her to run for the sole purpose of weakening other, more plausible conservative contenders. And it is unlikely that any candidate will run as the anti-Sarah, at least in the early stages of the race.
"Even though she had a terrible 2010 in terms of her national standing, she's still very popular with self-identified Republicans in states such as Iowa and South Carolina," said a top advisor to one of the other likely candidates. "It's the opposite of Rudy Giuliani in 2008. He had great national numbers but lousy Republican ones."
Proto-candidates such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and others have had little to say about Tucson and the state of American discourse.
Huckabee's chance to give his own assessment will come Saturday on his Fox News show. Network boss Roger Ailes has asked his people to "tone it down." Let's see whether the genial Huckabee listens to his boss or to Palin.