Gibbs: Palin might be 'most formidable force' in the Republican Party

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had rare praise for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on Friday, saying she might be "the most formidable force in the Republican Party."

As Palin heads to the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa this weekend to address the state party's Ronald Reagan Dinner in Des Moines, Gibbs said President Obama is not paying attention to the 2012 contest.

But Gibbs acknowledged it appears Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and a high-profile player in this year's midterm elections, seems to be “dipping that toe in" the waters for 2012.

Gibbs noted that Obama made similar trips to Iowa as a senator in 2006, setting up his successful runs in Iowa and ultimately for the White House.

Gibbs conceded Palin has the ability to draw huge crowds and energize the Republican base.

"She can rally the very conservative elements of the Republican base," Gibbs said.

Uncharacteristically, the often combative press secretary passed on the opportunity to take a shot at Palin, who has been a constant critic of Obama.

"I have no doubt that she is a formidable force in the Republican Party and very well could be the most formidable force in the Republican Party," Gibbs said. 

Shortly after Gibbs made his comments about Palin, the White House announced that Obama will travel to Des Moines at the end of the month for another small townhall event.