A PRETTY BIG 2012 HINT…. In Iowa this year, there’s a reasonably competitive Republican gubernatorial primary. The frontrunner is former four-term Gov. Terry Branstad, who left office more than a decade ago, but now wants his old job back, but he faces a credible challenge from businessman and conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats.

While the party establishment is rallying in support of Branstad, the GOP’s far-right base clearly prefers the more conservative Vander Plaats, who’s picked up endorsements from Mike Huckabee, James Dobson, actor/activist Chuck Norris, assorted Tea Partiers, and leading anti-gay and anti-abortion leaders in Iowa.

Yesterday, however, former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) threw her support to Branstad — which came as something of a surprise, not only because Vander Plaats is more in line with her far-right ideology, but also because Branstad didn’t ask for Palin’s backing.

So, what’s the story? Marc Ambinder explained the rationale.

There’s a simple answer to the question, I think. He’s going to be the next governor of Iowa, assuming that there are no stunning surprises next week and Chet Culver, the Democrat, doesn’t mount a miraculous election year comeback. […]

If you’re thinking about running for president, and I think Palin really is thinking about running for president, you don’t get on the wrong side of the guy who will probably be governor during the caucuses by endorsing his opponent, no matter how conservative and Tea Partyish Bob Vander Plaats seems to be.

In April, Andrew Sullivan engaged other observers in a discussion as to whether the conspicuously unintelligent Alaskan was likely to run for president in 2012. I generally considered it a no-brainer — of course she’s running. It’s always seemed pretty obvious.

Her Branstad endorsement only reinforces this. Why would she ignore the preference of her own Iowa allies, and risk annoying them?

Ed Kilgore added, “The religious right in Iowa deeply mistrusts Branstad for choosing a pro-choice Lieutenant Governor, for appointing two of the state Supreme Court judges who legalized same-sex marriage last year, and in general, for not seeming to care about their priorities.”

There’s only one reason for a move like this. It’s something for her followers, who think she’ll put right-wing principles above all else, to keep in mind.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.