Palin’s trip to Iowa launches Act II in her flirtation with the White House

DES MOINES, IOWA | Now begins stage two of Sarah Palin’s flirtation with the presidency.

It is possible that Palin’s speech here Friday evening for the annual Iowa GOP Reagan dinner means she is actually serious about a run for the White House. But it seems only Palin, her husband Todd, and maybe one or two aides know what she is thinking.

So after a nearly two year period in which she recovered from the 2008 campaign, wrote two books (one not yet released), formed a political action committee and rehabilitated her image to some degree, Palin’s arrival in the Hawkeye State will be watched closely by the political class, and by Iowa Republicans, for signs of her intentions.

Iowans – who place a premium on personal retail politics – have seen very little of Palin in person. She attended a handful of rallies in the state as a vice presidential candidate in 2008 and came to Sioux City last December on her book tour. So while her speech, which will be televised on C-SPAN, will draw national attention, those who will meet her said they will be watching her for more subtle signals.

“I’m going to be fascinated to see how she interacts with our activists, with our donors,” said a Republican state official, over lattes at Smokey Row Coffee House, just west of downtown.

Palin, 46, will meet backstage before her speech with GOP donors who bought tables at the dinner for $1,000 a piece, and with those who bought “premium seating” with donations of as much as $10,000 or more, a state GOP official said. A few donors are flying in from places like California, Illinois and Ohio to see Palin in person. The crowd will also include GOP campaign workers who earned tickets through volunteer hours in recent weeks.

But one reason why some think Palin’s purpose in all this is to milk the suspense of a possible run for all it’s worth – financially and politically – is that she has done little to establish a presence in Iowa, aside from endorsing and giving money to former Gov. Terry Branstad, who will likely win another term as governor, and giving money to Sen. Chuck Grassley, earlier this year.

“Most of the fairly sophisticated political activists don’t see her as being serious,” said one Iowa GOP political veteran. “I think she is a brilliant marketer, and she has very quickly established herself as essentially the new Phyllis Schlaffly, where if she properly maintains this brand, she’ll have it for another 20 years, and she’ll be very successful financially.”

“So at the end of the day I don’t think she gets in and runs,” said the Republican, who said many in the Party see her as “polarizing” and question whether she has “what it takes.”

“If it was too tough in Alaska, this is a totally different ball game at the national level,” he said, referring to Palin’s decision to resign as governor of Alaska with 17 months left in her first term.

But sentiments like those come largely from Iowan operatives already affiliated with other Republican presidential hopefuls, and will do nothing to dampen speculation and spiraling hype over Palin’s future. Coy comments by Palin at a 9/11 commemoration event last week in Alaska with Fox News’ Glenn Beck, as well as by one of Palin’s closest aides, Rebecca Mansour, in a Daily Beast report Thursday, have only fueled the media buzz.

NEXT: Palin was invited to speak in July 2009 but didn’t accept until late Aug. 2010