DES MOINES, IOWA | Sarah Palin dipped her toes into the waters of a potential run for president in 2012 with a biting speech to Hawkeye State activists Friday night in which she aggressively attacked the Republican establishment, the media, and the Obama administration.
Palin sought to portray herself as an upstart representative of the little guy, but also toyed with an identity as the leader of the Republican Party, issuing mock orders for the upcoming midterm elections to other GOP leaders, including former President George W. Bush.
The former Alaska governor said that for conservatives to put the country back on the right track, “it may take some renegades going rogue to get us there.”
Palin headlined the Iowa Republican Party’s annual Reagan Day dinner, taking her first serious symbolic step toward a possible run for president in 2012. The crowd of roughly 1,500 applauded her warmly, but was less adulatory than many of the crowds that Palin has spoken to over the last two years, in a sign that they expect more than just speeches.
The self-dubbed “Mama Grizzly” began her speech by name-checking every Republican running for statewide office this fall, and ended with a tribute to former President Ronald Reagan. In between she threw knives at her own axis of evil.
She began by stressing the need for unity within the GOP, and then said she wanted to have a “woodshed moment” with Republican operatives and losing campaigns who have been upset with insurgent candidates in party primaries.
“Attitudes are contagious, so make sure yours are worth catching,” she lectured.
Palin’s speech came at the end of a week in which her political brand rose to new heights, after the Tea Party Republican that she endorsed – Christine O’Donnell – won the Delaware Senate primary.
In fact, Palin’s star wattage and growing political influence is quickly overtaking conventional wisdom, which has been that she need not – and likely will not – make a decision on whether to run until as late as next summer. The emerging reality is that until Palin says she is not running, she will be treated as the front runner, displacing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Palin struck a defiant tone toward those in the GOP — some of them seated in the audience in front of her — who have made clear that they don’t think she is fit to represent the party.
“This is it GOP. This is our time. We can’t blow it GOP. But we won’t wait to be handed the political playbook from the elites on high,” she said.
But even as she sought to tore down the party’s command and control, Palin told the crowd what she would say “if I were in hierarchy of leadership in the GOP.”
“I would say, ‘Demint, you’re awesome, we need you down south. Mitt, go west. GW, we need you raising funds,” Palin said.
She then moved on to rip the press and the president. She called sources in politics who speak on background “cowards,” and said journalists who quote people without using their names are “gutless.”
“Anyone and everyone claiming that they are a journalist. You’ve got to ask , ‘Who are they really?”
Palin also ran through a critique of Obama’s record as president, which carried some of the same themes as her knocks at the Republican establishment.
“They think that America’s future should be dictated from the top down, not the bottom up,” she said. “They think that there’s nothing exceptional about the American people.”
Palin also compared Obama’s foreign policy to Reagan’s, casting Obama as a week-kneed apologist in contrast to Reagan’s steely optimism.
The majority of the responses from members of the audience, however, were overwhelmingly positive. A few said that the speech seemed aimed at a national TV audience more so than the people in the room. One state GOP operative compared her to a “machine gun” who ripped her critics, while another said she seemed to have a big “chip on her shoulder.”
But Bob Haus, an Iowa strategist who ran Fred Thompson’s 2008 campaign, gave Palin high marks for giving a “gutsy” speech that didn’t gloss over much of the internal strife within the GOP.
“It wasn’t, ‘All things are rosy here.’ It was, ‘We’ve got some challenges, some fresh blood, let’s work together. She challenged the party tonight: ‘Get better,'” Haus said. “I respect her for not giving a traditional speech.”
Judy Hansaker, a 57-year old retired teacher, said Palin’s speech was “a good inspiration,” and also said she supported Palin’s criticisms of “Washingtonized Republicans.”
Hansaker said she was a supporter of Palin even before the speech, but expressed doubts about her fitness for the presidency, saying: “It bothered me when she resigned from governor.”
Carl Heinrich, a 78-year old retiree, said he would support a Palin presidential run and does not feel the need to meet her.
“She has the ability. I don’t agree with people who say she has the right ideas but isn’t capable,” he said.
Earlier Friday, Palin gave the clearest indication yet that she is leaning toward running against President Obama, telling Fox News she will launch a campaign if the American people decide she is “the one.”
“If the American people were to be ready for someone who is willing to shake it up, and willing to get back to time-tested truths, and help lead our country towards a more prosperous and safe future and if they happen to think I was the one, if it were best for my family and for our country, of course I would give it a shot,” she said.
“But I’m not saying that it’s me. I know I can certainly make a difference without having a title. I’m having a good time doing exactly that right now,” she said.
In a sign that Palin is being taken increasingly seriously, the White House announced Friday afternoon that Obama will head here to Iowa’s capital on Sept. 29 as part of a three-city tour to talk about the economy.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs took subtle swipes at Palin’s appeal, implying her popularity with the conservative base does not translate into the broader electorate.
“She can rally the very conservative elements of the Republican base. That was … quite clear in her ability to impact who becomes the nominee in Delaware or in other places around the country,” Gibbs said. “She’s always drawn big crowds back to 2008.”
But, Gibbs added: “At some point, if she decides to become a contestant for President of the United States, there will be a whole series of questions that each has to go through and answer for the people of Iowa, the people of New Hampshire, and throughout this country.”
The dominant question here in Iowa is whether Palin will commit herself to visiting the state regularly in the coming months to get to know and to woo the roughly 120,000 Republicans who are active in the caucus system, and who place the highest of premiums on getting to know candidates up close and personal.