May 29 (Bloomberg) -- Sarah Palin is joining a group of about 400,000 motorcyclists for the annual Rolling Thunder “Ride for Freedom,” which coincides with a bus tour that is renewing speculation about her 2012 presidential ambitions.
Palin, who has no official speaking role at the event, is kicking off her bus tour in Washington, where she will participate in the annual event, in which bikers ride from the Pentagon to the Vietnam War Memorial to draw attention to missing service members and prisoners of war.
The former Alaska governor’s “One Nation Tour” could be a prelude to a bid for the Republican nomination -- or an effort to command the spotlight as the competition heats up.
“Is this bus tour a trial run for a planned race, or is it an attempt to remain visible and relevant?” asked Charlie Cook, publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “You can count all the people who really know what Sarah Palin is thinking and planning on one hand.”
Other Republicans are formalizing their plans. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty entered the race May 23 with an announcement in Des Moines. Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, visited Iowa Friday for the first time this year, and his campaign says he will announce his candidacy on June 2. Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann has said she will make her intentions known in June, and Texas Governor Rick Perry said on May 27 he’s “thinking about” running.
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, real estate developer Donald Trump, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee have all announced in recent weeks that they wouldn’t enter the contest.
Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 on a message of socially conservative populism, so his decision not to run provides an opening for a candidate such as Palin or Bachmann, who have both built a similar political brand, said Cook.
“I suspect that Palin sees herself as having created this space, she views Bachmann as an upstart and interloper,” Cook said. “Conversely, Bachmann may see herself as intellectually superior and more qualified than Palin.”
Palin has limited her public appearances over the past several months to her role as a paid Fox News analyst and to occasional posts on Facebook and Twitter; she has done little so far to build formal campaign operations in early voting states such as Iowa.
Indications she may be serious about a bid include hiring additional staff and finishing a two-hour biographical documentary. She has also reportedly purchased a home for about $1.7 million in Scottsdale, Arizona, which could become a campaign base.
“She certainly is a major factor,” Senator John McCain of Arizona, who as the Republican presidential candidate in 2008 chose Palin as his running mate, said on “Fox News Sunday” today. “Whether she’ll even run or not, I don’t know.”
Ted Shpak, Rolling Thunder national legislative director, said May 27 on MSNBC that Palin wasn’t invited and the group doesn’t endorse candidates.
“We can’t stop her from coming to ride,” Shpak said.
“If she wants to ride, that’s fine,” he said. “It is a big distraction” because “we’re not political.”
Rolling Thunder director Artie Muller said on CNN today that she’s welcome to join the group.
Tim Crawford, the treasurer of Palin’s political action committee and a spokesman for the former governor, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some Republican insiders doubt that Palin will run, said Dan Schnur, a former adviser to McCain when he sought the Republican presidential nomination 2000.
As a candidate, Palin would lose her $1 million-a-year Fox contract, and she would have to scale back her paid speaking schedule. A political loss could also put at risk any future earnings potential.
“She’s smart enough to understand that the longer she waits before making an announcement, the more visible she’s going to be and the more influence she is going to have,” Schnur said. “Being a shadow candidate can be a lot more fun for her.”
Palin has said repeatedly that she has not made up her mind about 2012. In October, she said she would run “if there’s nobody else to do it.” In March, she told a Fox News host she was “tempted” to run.
For the tour, which will at least extend to New Hampshire, the home of the nation’s first presidential primary, Palin has chartered a red, white and blue bus for what her political action committee website describes as “our new campaign to educate and energize Americans about our nation’s founding principles, in order to promote the fundamental restoration of America.”
A Gallup poll released May 26 showed Palin virtually tied with Romney in a national survey of Republican and Republican- leaning independent voters. Romney was supported by 17 percent and Palin by 15 percent. The poll was taken May 20-24 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. A Gallup poll a month earlier put her at 10 percent.
Her unfavorable ratings are high; a Quinnipiac University poll released May 4 found that 58 percent of those surveyed said they would never vote for Palin for president.
Other potential candidates include former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who resigned his post as U.S. ambassador to China on April 30; former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, a Democrat-turned- Republican. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and Herman Cain, the former chairman of Godfather’s Pizza, also have declared they are running.
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