Palin vs. Perry in 2012?

They're allies now, but if the two governors for president, they could turn into rivals as they both seek tea-party votes

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Sarah Palin jokingly calls Texas "Alaska's little sister state,'' but its governor -- and her political ally -- Rick Perry could be a big obstacle to her own potential White House run.

While the breakout performance by Rep. Michele Bachmann at Monday's GOP presidential debate has set off speculation that the Minnesotan could usurp Palin as the favorite of Republican tea party activists and religious conservatives, Perry's announcement that he's taking a second look at a White House run sets up an intriguing potential showdown between two politicians who, up to now, have had an unusually warm relationship.

In a GOP field devoid of a commanding front-runner, Perry's crowd-whipping talent, rapport with the evangelical community, tea-party-friendly disdain for government, and prodigious fundraising network make him an increasingly attractive presidential candidate. Those are the same assets that Palin would bring to a campaign -- except that she also carries all of the political baggage collected since John McCain chose her as his running mate in 2008. What's more, the three-term governor of Texas can point to far more executive experience than his pal, who quit her job as governor of Alaska after two and a half years.

"When you line them up next to each other, he's superior in every facet," said Texas-based political consultant and lobbyist Bill Miller, who has never worked for Perry. "His entry into the race would be very bad for Palin if she wants to run. The only thing she has that he doesn't is celebrity, but that's not enough to become a nominee."

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Just as the friendship between Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was recently scrutinized for clues about whether they would run for president against each other (they both passed on the race), now the attention turns to the Perry-Palin relationship.

Perry and Palin bonded in April 2008 at a forum that the Republican Governors Association sponsored, and he campaigned with her in Texas during the 2008 presidential race. She returned the favor when Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison challenged him for reelection in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary.

"He walks the walk of a true conservative," Palin wrote in a letter distributed to members of the Texas Federation of Republican Women. "He sticks by his guns -- and you know how I feel about guns."

Palin also headlined a high-profile rally for Perry last year, attended by thousands of people on Super Bowl Sunday, about a week before the start of early voting. He handily won reelection.

One Texas Republican who is convinced that Perry will run for president is Dan Patrick, a state senator and possible U.S. Senate candidate; he calls the governor "conservative lightning in a bottle." Patrick said that description also applies to Palin -- and Bachmann. But he suggested that a Perry decision to run for president might preempt a bid by Palin.

"If too many conservatives get in, they will divide the grassroots base and allow someone else to get the nomination," said Patrick, who has met Palin several times and describes himself as an admirer. "Palin and Perry understand that and know that the bigger picture is to win. If one steps forward first, the other may see a different role."

Image credit: Hans Deryk/Reuters

But Republican consultant Keith Appell, who is promoting a new documentary on Palin called "The Undefeated," predicted that other candidates' decisions won't figure into Palin's calculus.

"She has about as many energized people at the grassroots level as all the others combined--maybe more," he said. "If she gets in, it won't be a question of whether or not there is room for her, it'll be a question of whether or not there is room for several others."