The Republicans' shattering victory in the 2010 congressional election may have put the party squarely on the back of a tiger. Her name is Sarah Palin.
Palin, the Tea Party voters she inspired and the candidates she backed in the Republican landslide are determined to force an unprecedented overhaul of American politics and fiscal policy.
Now, those Tea Party victors and their backers are demanding strict attention to their ultraconservative agenda, are not in a mood to compromise and could put Palin on the Republican ticket for president two years hence.
Counter-intuitively, perhaps, that's put mainstream Republican politicians on edge. For Democrats looking for any scrap of good news in the rubble of their Nov. 2 loss, Palin's prominence is a silver lining.
"The best hope for Barack Obama (in 2012) has nothing to do with his presidency," said Natalie Davis, a professor at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama. "It has everything to do with employment and whether Sarah Palin runs."
A new Associated Press-GFK poll explains why.
The survey of adult Americans' views of potential Republican presidential candidates in 2012 shows Palin as the most polarizing figure. Of those questioned, 46 percent viewed her favorably, 49 percent unfavorably and 34 percent said they held a "very unfavorable" impression.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee does better than Palin among all adults, scoring a 49 percent favorable rating against 27 percent who view him unfavorably.
But when the survey responses for Republicans only are tallied, Palin outstrips Huckabee. In that group she registers a 79 percent favorable reading against only 17 percent who view her unfavorably.
Huckabee ranks second at 74 percent favorable, 10 percent unfavorable.
Tea Party zeal
The Tea Party is a loose amalgam of groups whose candidates ran under the Republican party banner. The movement had no unified agenda, but candidates mostly pushed for a balanced budget, elimination of the federal debt, repeal of the President Barack Obama's health care reform law and strict interpretation of the Constitution.
An endorsement from Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, was credited as a major factor in victories of many Tea Partiers.
Republicans, fueled by Tea Party zeal, seized on the country's feeble economy, stubbornly high unemployment and Obama's plunging popularity to roar out of the minority in the House of Representatives into a sizable majority.
They likewise considerably cut into Democrats' Senate majority and scored huge gains in balloting for 37 state governorships.
More than three dozen of the Republicans Palin supported won seats in Congress and she banked some big favors due her in three critical states — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — that hold early caucus and primary contests for the presidential nomination.
For example, the former Alaska governor and current contributor to Fox News, backed Terry Branstad, the former Iowa governor who won back that office Nov. 2.
Palin also endorsed Kelly Ayotte, the former New Hampshire attorney general, in her primary for an open Senate seat that she won handily.
Palin's defense of South Carolina Gov.-elect Nikki Haley during allegations of an affair helped Haley win the Republican nomination and then make history as the state's first female and first Indian-American chief.
Palin blamed for some Senate losses
Yet Palin is blamed by some for Republican losses in Senate races in Delaware and Nevada. She supported extreme Tea Party politicians who lost seats that the Republicans otherwise were expected to win, had more moderate candidates emerged from the primary.
That was especially painful because the Republicans had been on course to oust Senate Democrat leader Harry Reid in Nevada and to win the open seat that was held by Vice President Joe Biden in Delaware.
Palin has not said if she will run for president in 2012, and she may be waiting to see how the Tea Party success in this year's congressional vote sits with the country over the coming months.
"The big question about 2012, is whether Palin and people like her try to dominate the Republicans, saying 'we are the driving force and you have to gratify us to win,'" said James Broussard, a Republican and professor of history at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania.
Will the GOP give up the middle?
"Are the Republicans willing to give up the middle?" he asked. "Palin is great at firing up the base, like (Democrat Howard) Dean, (Republican Barry) Goldwater and (Democrat George) McGovern."
Those three made a run for the presidency from the ideological fringe of their party and failed badly in, respectively, 2004, 1964 and 1972.
Democrats are hoping for a Palin run for that reason, banking on Obama to regain his popularity in the final two years of his presidency. Former President Bill Clinton did just that to win a second term in 1996.
His Democrats had lost the House for the first time in 40 years just two years earlier and ceded their majority in the Senate as well.
But Clinton was riding a booming economy. Obama is not and forecasts show a continued weak recovery over the next couple of years. That could make all the difference.