WASHINGTON: Will Sarah Palin use her Tea Party power to launch a run for president in 2012? Nobody knows, but her trip to Iowa on Friday may provide some clues.
Palin speaks at the Iowa Republican Party's Ronald Reagan Dinner in Des Moines, her influence among Tea Party activists strong after conservative candidates she backed won in Delaware and New Hampshire Senate primary races on Tuesday.
The former Alaska governor, who was Republican Senator John McCain's vice presidential running mate in the 2008 campaign, remains coy about whether she will join what could be a long list of challengers to Democratic President Barack Obama.
But her visit to Iowa for a speech at a high-profile party fund-raising event for Nov. 2 congressional elections will doubtless feed speculation the self-styled “hockey mom” might seek the White House in 2012.
“I think what she's doing there is what she's doing in a lot of places — she's tickling the political community. I think for any politician to show up in Iowa is to fuel speculation,” said David Yepsen, a longtime Iowa watcher who is director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
Iowa and New Hampshire cast the first votes in presidential nominating campaigns and potential candidates routinely stop in each state in hopes of propelling themselves into the national spotlight.
Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, pondering a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, has already blazed a trail across Iowa and is planning a sixth trip there in October.
While Pawlenty has largely flown under the radar, Palin can go nowhere quietly, usually drawing big crowds of fellow conservatives.
A polarizing figure loathed by liberals, Palin has helped roil Republican politics this year by backing anti-establishment candidates in primary elections, many of whom won on a platform of cutting government spending and taxes, causes supported by Tea Party activists.
Republicans are expected to turn voter worries about the economy and Obama's leadership into big gains in congressional elections in November that could give them control of the House and perhaps even the Senate.
“During the primary season, she has dramatically strengthened the view that she could win the party's presidential nomination, because her base is the Tea Party base and they keep winning key primaries,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said of Palin.
If Palin runs, said Sabato, “it would be the best news Democrats could possibly have.”
46 PERCENT UNFAVORABILITY RATING
While popular among conservatives, Palin still has a long way to go with other Americans. A CBS News poll on Thursday said 46 percent of American voters viewed Palin unfavorably, compared with 21 percent who have a favorable opinion of her and 33 percent who are undecided.
Palin has been calling for Republican unity after Tea Party-backed Christine O'Donnell defeated establishment candidate Mike Castle in Delaware's Republican Senate primary.
Many Republicans quickly predicted O'Donnell would likely lose to her Democratic opponent in November, thwarting any likelihood of a Republican takeover of the Senate.
“My message to those who say that the GOP nominee is not electable, or that they're not even going to try, well I say, 'Buck up!'” Palin told Fox News.
Palin, who promotes a traditional Republican low-tax, pro-business economic policy and aggressive foreign policy, broadcasts her political views as a frequent contributor on Fox News and through Facebook and Twitter postings.
The Republican lineup for 2012 will start forming late this year and in early 2011, and as many as a dozen aspirants are possible, from Pawlenty to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Saul Anuzis, a Republican Party member from Michigan, said Palin was clearly keeping her options open by visiting Iowa.
He has his doubts whether she would actually run, considering her lucrative career as a conservative voice, making speeches and writing a second book.
“I'm just guessing,” said Anuzis. “I think it's more likely she doesn't than she does. but I think it's a possibility.”