DES MOINES, Iowa — Sarah Palin, the telegenic Republican who exasperates and delights voters about equally, is dropping ever more hints of a presidential bid, including a visit Saturday to the key state of Iowa.
The official purpose of her trip to suburban Des Moines is to promote her new book, "America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag." But Democratic and Republican insiders will search for every possible hint of whether she will seek the nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.
Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee, has fed such speculation in recent days. She told ABC's Barbara Walters she thinks she could beat Obama, adding, "I'm looking at the lay of the land now."
In a separate interview, Obama told Walters, "I don't think about Sarah Palin." He added that Palin has "a strong base of support in the Republican Party, and I respect those skills."
Palin will attend a second book-signing event next week in Iowa, which holds the nation's first presidential caucuses in 13 months.
Some political pros suspect it's a tease, a way for Palin to keep drawing big crowds to her lucrative TV show and books while avoiding the nitty-gritty work of organizing a national campaign, wooing hard-to-impress caucus voters and raising millions of dollars.
Others warn against underestimating her ambition or her ability to snatch the GOP nomination from a dozen men who covet it.
"She may run away with it, and that's something everybody has to be prepared for," said Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa Republican caucus. He is weighing another presidential run, and some feel he wants to set high expectations for a possible rival.
While Palin's fans are loyal and legion, the prospect of her running for president alarms some Republicans. They think Palin is too polarizing and too inexperienced to defeat Obama, even if Republicans in general can maintain the momentum of their powerful performance in this month's midterm elections.
Her foreign policy gaffe Wednesday kept the question alive. She declared on Glenn Beck's syndicated radio show that the United States has to stand with "our North Korean allies" in connection with tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Her mistake was quickly corrected by her host. But it drew immediate fire from liberal bloggers who cited it as an example of her lack of foreign policy expertise. Newspapers in Asia and Europe echoed the criticism. The Times of India says Palin "did it again," while London's Daily Mail says she "may want to brush up on her geography."
The conservative U.S. website The Weekly Standard came to Palin's defense, pointing out that "she correctly identified North Korea as our enemy literally eight seconds before the mix-up."
At home, polls show voters deeply divided over Palin. A recent AP-GfK poll found that 46 percent of Americans view her favorably while 49 percent hold an unfavorable view. The portion holding a "very unfavorable" view heavily outweighs those with a "very favorable" view.
In the poll, 79 percent of self-described Republicans said they like Palin. That suggests she might do well in GOP primaries, although she has some work to do in Iowa.
In exit polls of Iowa Republicans who voted this month, 21 percent said they'd like to see Huckabee win the 2012 caucus. Another 21 percent named Mitt Romney, and 18 percent picked Palin.
Palin has given mixed signals about her intentions. She recently granted interviews to ABC and The New York Times, even as she vowed not to speak again with CBS News anchor Katie Couric, whose 2008 interview left Palin seemingly unable or unwilling to name a newspaper or magazine she reads regularly.
Palin's speeches and book-signing parties typically are carefully controlled affairs, with reporters kept at a distance. But if she is to compete in early voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, she will have to mingle with inquisitive voters in scores of living rooms and small gatherings, experienced strategists say.
"At some point in time, if she's a serious candidate, she has to do what other candidates do, and that's engage people one on one," said veteran Iowa GOP activist Steve Scheffler. "You may be a rock star, but if you don't have the mechanics, it's difficult."
Huckabee, an ordained minister who ran an intense grass-roots campaign in Iowa before falling to eventual GOP nominee John McCain, agreed.
"People in Iowa and New Hampshire are not star-struck because somebody is running for president," he said. "They will ask the hard questions and they will put people through the wringer."
It's possible, however, that Palin's high visibility — boosted by frequent appearances on Fox News and her new TV show on the TLC network, "Sarah Palin's Alaska" — will let her play by different rules. No other potential GOP candidate can touch off a media frenzy with a brief comment on Facebook or Twitter, as she can. Palin's golden touch extended to her daughter Bristol, whom voters repeatedly brought back for more "Dancing with the Stars" despite her limited talent.
Before the TV hit's final show, in which she finished third, Bristol Palin said winning the contest "would be like a big middle finger to all the people out there that hate my mom and hate me."
Sarah Palin's record certainly has its dents. Some Republicans partly blame her for painful Senate losses in Nevada and Delaware, where she endorsed tea party upstarts who won the GOP nomination but lost to vulnerable Democrats. Closer to home, she was embarrassed when her Alaska GOP rival, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, won re-election with a write-in campaign after a Palin-backed challenger had won the party nomination.
Many are still bewildered by Palin's abrupt decision in July 2009 to step down as Alaska's governor. If she didn't want to finish one term as governor of a sparsely populated state, they ask, how badly can she want to be president, and how well could she serve?
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine recently told the Kennebec Journal: "I think she likes being a celebrity commentator for Fox, and a speaker, and being able to provide for her family. It's a lot easier to charge people up than to actually govern."
Former first lady Barbara Bush said Palin seems happy in Alaska and "I hope she'll stay there."
In Iowa, some doubt that Palin can skate by on her fame while Romney, Huckabee and others go door-to-door, day after day.
"Is she going to try to organize on star power, which is problematic?" asked Ed Failor Jr., head of Iowans for Tax Relief. "She really could be a very good candidate," he said, "but there are a lot of decisions she needs to make about how to proceed with the caucus process."
Palin keeps only a few advisers close to her, led by her husband, Todd. She told the New York Times Magazine that if she runs for president, "the organization would have to change."
Bob Vander Plaats, who heads The Family Leader, an Iowa umbrella group of evangelical Christian organizations, said Palin appeals to many but must do some ground work.
"There's a big difference between coming to Iowa and signing a book and coming to Iowa and saying you want to be commander in chief and leader of the free world," he said. He said the last celebrity candidate in Iowa was former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who fizzled badly.
"It didn't play well when he came with his rope lines and his motorcades," Vander Plaats said. "People wanted to sit at the kitchen table with him."
Terry Holt, a Washington-based Republican campaign strategist, said Palin "is a force to be reckoned with." She's doing some things that a candidate needs to do, he said, and "all the things that kingmakers need to do."
Following a midterm election in which voters embraced non-mainstream Republicans in many states, Holt said, "it would be a mistake to sell her short."
Babington reported from Washington.
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