Sarah Palin courts Arkansans at first Republican state party fundraiser

Suzi Parker Contributor
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The battle for 2012 began in Arkansas on Tuesday night when Sarah Palin brought her celebrity to an arena filled with state GOP elite and Tea Party commoners who had never attended a political event.

It was Palin’s first fundraiser for a state party in the country, although she charged a speaking fee rumored around $75,000. After costs, the party will gross about $400,000.

For all the red, white and blue pageantry, there was one noticeable absence: Mike Huckabee.

“Huckabee will be elsewhere in the country,” said Doyle Webb, state party chairman.

While governor, Huckabee dominated any GOP event, his star rising with each visit by George W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani or Dick Cheney. He entertained GOP movers and shakers at the governor’s mansion and took them duck hunting in nearby Stuttgart, the duck hunting capitol of the world.

Here on Huckabee turf Tuesday night, Palin obliterated any thought of the former governor. She received a .44 magnum as a welcoming gift, cementing her street cred with the Second Amendment crowd. Not unusual, except in Arkansas, Huckabee has always been the hunter-in-chief.

“Huckabee is focused on his show,” says one GOP insider. “He hasn’t even said he is running so I wouldn’t read too much into his absence tonight.”

Still, it’s never too early to start courting votes and currying favor for a potential presidential run. And Palin on her first visit to Arkansas performed such a task in spades.

People left an earlier meet-and-greet in tears. Women hugged her and said they wished she was their daughter. More women than men wore Palin buttons.

She said as much when she told the story of duck hunting with her father as a girl. When buckshot rained over her, she said she was scared. “It’s just buckshot, just duck,” Palin’s father said. “I apply to today with all the crap out there. It won’t hurt you.”

Palin often praised Arkansas, known as the Natural State, as being similar in values and landscape to Alaska. She mentioned Wal-Mart several times. The company was a sponsor of the event.

She stood patiently as the crowd called the Arkansas Razorbacks with the traditional “Woo Pig Sooie.” She took pre-selected questions from Webb about hunting, threats to the United States (terrorism is number one), and the Tea Party (she loves those people).

Arkansas historically votes Republican in presidential elections. The McCain-Palin ticket won the state by 20 percentage points in 2008. It’s also trending red for the 2010 midterms. And there’s no guarantee that native son Huckabee has the beloved reverence — or strong base — that propelled Bill Clinton to the White House.

But Huckabee isn’t just focusing on his television show or trips to Israel with Pat Boone. On Thursday, Huckabee visits his own battleground state.

He will campaign in South Carolina for Rex Rice, a state representative running for Congress in upstate Greenville. In 2008, McCain won South Carolina in the Republican primary but Huckabee was a close second

A press release points out that Huckabee has been shown in a hypothetical head-to-head 2012 polls as the Republican alternative to President Barack Obama..

But so has Palin. And Mitt Romney.

It’s too soon to know whether Palin or Huckabee will run in 2012. Confidants of both say they are focused on helping the GOP win in 2010, and making money with their books, television shows and speaking gigs.

As one veteran politico said at the Palin event, “She’s a rock star.”

That’s what they use to say about Bill Clinton.