Sarah Palin went to address the Tea Party Convention last night, laying out the populist-conservative case against Obama. We “need a commander in chief and not a law professor” in the war against “radical Islamic extremists” she declared.  (In purposefully using a phrase that the president eschews, she, of course, reinforces her point.) She fingered the closed-door deals and non-transparency in Washington, asking mockingly, “How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out for you?” And she hit the themes that have galvanized the populist activists and around which establishment conservatives have rallied. She criticized the president’s apologetic foreign policy and his failure to support human rights and democracy advocates, called the massive debt “generational theft,” advocated domestic energy development, and urged a return to more limited government and low taxes (noting Ronald Reagan’s birthday). And she also skewered Obama for incessantly blaming George W. Bush and for striking out in three big elections (“When you’re 0-3, you’d better stop lecturing and start listening”).

She demurred when asked about a presidential run and urged the Tea Party movement not to be about a single personality. But her purpose here seems quite clear. She is making the case that there is a powerful political movement, test run in Massachusetts, for independent-minded populists and conservatives. While she isn’t yet offering herself as a candidate, it doesn’t take much imagination to hear that same speech a year or two from now, phrased as an announcement of her presidential candidacy.

But for a moment, let’s put Palin aside. The issues she hit certainly comprise the core criticisms of Obama and will form the platform for conservatives in 2010 and 2012. Many of the issues she enumerated were positions that lifted Chris Christie, Bob McDonnell, and Scott Brown to victory, proving that there is not, in fact, much daylight between Tea Party activists, mainstream Republicans, and disaffected independent voters. And in one form or another, we are hearing similar themes from virtually all Republicans — whether it’s Rep. Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio or Meg Whitman or the other 2012 likely contenders.

So the question, I think, for Republicans is not what but who — who will emerge as the most effective standard bearer of that agenda. That — despite the continual chatter from the punditocracy to find the answer right now — can wait for the 2012 presidential campaign. The “what” will suffice for a nationalized, 2010 midterm election. And then the race will be on to see if Palin or some other figure emerges as the most effective champion for that core agenda.

Palin has followed no rule book and no pundit’s advice in the last year. She quit the governorship, sold millions of books, got a million and a half Facebook fans, broke through the health-care reform debate with her “death panel” critique, and now has endeared herself to a grassroots movement. Pundits will ask, “But is that enough?” Well, it’s a lot for a year’s work. After all, we are two years away from the start of the primary season. But this much is clear: her potential opponents for 2012 will have to figure out how to match the enthusiasm and affection she generates. (The mainstream media and liberals [but I repeat myself] loathe her, but they don’t vote in the GOP presidential primary.) And, without adopting the criticisms favored by the mainstream media — e.g., she lacks an Ivy League degree – that are likely to alienate the conservative base, they must figure out how to make the case that she’s not the right person to go toe to toe with Obama. That’s not, by any means, an impossible task. But judging from last night’s outing, the flock of 2012 contenders may have their work cut out for them.