In the latest instance of a high-profile GOP member taking a passing swipe at the party's 2008 vice-presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Governor and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney jokingly dismissed Sarah Palin’s inclusion on TIME’s list of influential people in an interview broadcast Sunday.
He asked, was “the issue on the most beautiful people or the most influential people?”
Romney, appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” was replying to a question from moderator John King on whether TIME’s inclusion of Palin and talk show host Rush Limbaugh on their list of “The World’s Most Influential People” was good or bad for the Republican Party.
Romney, who has not ruled out another White House bid, said he wanted more influential Republicans on the list before adding pointedly: “I think there are a lot more influential Republicans than that would suggest.”
“But was that the issue on the most beautiful people or the most influential people?” he continued. “I'm not sure. If it's the most beautiful, I understand. We're not real cute.”
Asked about Romney’s comment, Palin didn’t respond to the reference to her appearance.
"I think there are 100 influential Republicans alone who have tremendous ideas and I hope that we can all work together to accomplish what we believe is best for America,” Palin said through a spokeswoman.
Romney, who was appearing with House Minority Whip Eric Cantor as part of a party re-launch the two are organizing with other prominent Republicans under the banner of the National Council for a New America, was laughing and smiling as he said it. His spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, called it only “a self-deprecating joke as to why there weren't more Republicans on the list.”
But Romney’s quip reflects the deep unease among many in the GOP establishment about the continued high-profile of Limbaugh and especially Palin. There is almost a sense of exasperation among many party elites over the media coverage the two polarizing figures get – attention which, in Palin’s case, is widely seen as a product largely of her good looks and tabloid-fodder family troubles.
“She’s bigger in the media than in reality,” lamented GOP consultant Mike Murphy, a longtime friend and adviser to John McCain.
“Palin," he said, "is the only Republican politician right now who is interesting, a little different, connected to the last campaign and related to an occasional story in the National Enquirer.”
Another GOP strategist carped, "The media is still obsessed with the Tina Fey impersonations and intra-campaign drama."
Romney’s comments were striking because such grumbling is rarely expressed in public by high-ranking Republicans. Instead, GOP officials typically strive to ignore Palin, routinely leaving her off lists of the party’s rising stars even though she still retains a significant following among grassroots conservatives and may run for president in 2012.
The euphemistic mantra is that the party has to rebuild based on policy solutions – not the “personalities” the media insists on focusing their attention on.
Responding to King’s question first, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor said “there are some who like to make it all about personalities, but it's about ideas.”
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who is also playing a prominent role in the Council, similarly said to POLITICO Saturday after the group's launch in Arlington, Va., that the group hopes “to make the next election about ideas and not about personalities.”
Bush, while not responding to a Palin question, expressed frustration at the press wanting to cover the who’s-up-who’s-down political horserace, rather than policy.
Palin was initially not included on the Council because she didn’t respond to requests, but Sen. John McCain said in a conference call with reporters that he hoped she would be involved with the group.
"They would rather just ignore Palin," said Murphy of the GOP mainstream, "but the media won’t let them."