Few would place bets on Palin's future presidential campaign plans

Sarah Palin has once again taken center stage and delighted her supporters with the announcement that she will begin a high-profile bus tour in Washington on Sunday.

The tour has an obvious — and presumably intentional — resemblance to a campaign jaunt. But many people on both sides of the political divide remain skeptical that she will run, or that she has a viable path to the Republican presidential nomination if she does so.

Then again, placing bets on Palin’s plans has always been a fast way to lose money.

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Asked to give his “gut feeling” about whether Palin will enter the 2012 race, Republican strategist Dan Judy responded: “My gut feeling is that it is impossible to have a gut feeling about Sarah Palin. Since 2008, she has not done anything that a potential candidate would do. But then again: She’s Sarah Palin.”

(Judy, who added that “I don’t think she has a legitimate shot at the nomination”, is a vice-president at the Republican consulting firm Ayres, McHenry and Associates, which will work with former Gov. Jon Huntsman (Utah) if he enters the race.)

Palin’s fortunes seemed to have declined somewhat in recent months. Her favorability ratings — never quite as lustrous as her star power — had fallen even among Republicans. Her decision to release a video message in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz) in which she implied she was the victim of a “blood libel” attracted widespread criticism. 

More generally, the [replace 'widespread' with 'common'] assumption that she would not run in 2012 had left political professionals more inclined to chatter about other potential candidates, including Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), who is often seen as boasting a somewhat Palin-like appeal.

Some circumstances, however, have worked to Palin’s advantage, particularly the decision of other high-profile figures to stay out of the race. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.) and Gov. Haley Barbour (Miss.) could both conceivably have sought similar slices of the demographic pie.

Palin may decide that the stars have aligned for her with both those men out, Bachmann not yet in and, among the other likely or declared candidates, only former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) intimately connected to the social conservative movement.

“Nature abhors a vacuum and so does Sarah Palin,” said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon. “I’m not surprised that with Huckabee out and absent some other Tea Party favorite in the race for the GOP nomination, Palin is cranking up her machine.”

There is also the unusually slow-to-solidify nature of the 2012 contest to consider.

“The GOP field is relatively undefined and there is no clear frontrunner,” said Dr. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. “At best, Romney is a weak frontrunner. Palin has a strong base of support and would have to be considered a top-tier candidate from the get-go, with the ability to raise a ton of money and grab the free media attention that most candidates can only dream about.”

However, Sabato continued, Republican activists “want a winner against President Obama. Early trial heats can be deceptive in some ways, but Palin loses to Obama by the widest margin of just about any candidate. The risks of nominating Palin are very, very high.”

It is, of course, for precisely this reason that some Democrats dream fondly of Obama facing Palin across the presidential-debate stage. They look at Palin’s tendency to polarize, her high negative ratings and her tendency to make sometimes-confounding public remarks and they tend to share the sentiment that Obama strategist David Plouffe expressed last year: “Something tells me we won’t get that lucky”.

Nonetheless, Palin has never lacked either self-confidence or determination. She can also point to at least one example of her winning against the odds — the defining victory of her political career came when she defeated sitting Alaska governor Frank Murkowski in a Republican primary.

She could conceivably think that she would hoover up the vast majority of social conservative votes, thus transforming a multi-candidate contest into a de facto head-to-head battle with a more establishment figure, such as Romney.

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In that scenario, though the Republican establishment would no doubt rally against her, Palin still might fancy her chances. Even if she were to lose, such a showing would be far from an embarrassment. And it would also ensure Palin’s continued political and cultural relevance, which might dim if she backed away from the race.

But even this kind of hypothetical scenario runs up against the central question to which almost no one knows the answer: What does Palin want?

She may indeed be on the brink of deciding that the presidential race is too enticing to pass up. But it seems just as likely that she has no intention of doing so, and is more interested in using the media attention she gets at moments like these to maintain her profile – and her celebrity.

“She is doing very well with her current business model,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “And that could be very hard to give up.”

His views find an echo in those of Democratic strategist Julian Mulvey.

“She has been doing such a fantastic job making herself a brand and making herself a lot of money,” he said. “I think she will continue the tease for as long as possible. But I think she has other priorities.”