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

Jon Ward Contributor
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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

“Most of the reasonably well-informed Republicans I know think the race for the Republican presidential nomination is wide-open,” wrote influential conservative blogger and Washington attorney Paul Mirengoff Tuesday. “But … there’s another way of looking at 2012 that I find at least as plausible: the nomination is Sarah Palin’s to lose.”

And it is possible that Palin may be toying with the idea now – she agreed to speak at the dinner on Aug. 31, Iowa sources said, after receiving an invitation in July 2009 – but will find it hard to resist a growing clamor for her to launch a campaign that already shows signs of developing.

In July, Palin said she would spend time in “contemplation and prayer” over whether to run for president. She will arrive in Iowa after headlining a fundraiser Thursday for Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul, followed by a speech to 10,000 at a gospel convention in Louisville. On Wednesday she spoke in Tulsa at a $10,000 a table fundraiser for an Oklahoma think tank.

Palin has no ground operation in Iowa. But Gary Kirke, a successful businessman from West Des Moines who owns two casinos in the state, has been “very vocal” in his support of her, according to one source. Mr. Kirke could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.

Yet none of the 2012 hopefuls besides Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has a fully established operation up and running in Iowa. Pawlenty’s point man in the state is former GOP state chairman Chuck Larson, who was a top adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 campaign. But former Bush political adviser Sara Taylor and former McCain campaign manager Terry Nelson – both of them with Iowa connections – are also working for Pawlenty.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has an infrastructure in the state that observers said is so far dormant but could be flipped on quickly, with GOP consultant David Kochel ready to lead the effort. Newt Gingrich, to the surprise of some in the state, is in the process of building a support network and appears to be very serious about a run.

Matt Strawn, the current chairman of the Iowa GOP, said the race for positioning in 2010 is behind where it was in 2006.

“Caucus organizing activity is occurring at a dramatically slower pace than it did four years ago,” Strawn said. “This is likely attributable to two factors in Iowa. One, the majority of activist energy is focused on maximizing Republican midterm wins. Two, the unsettled nature of the field given who may, or may not, ultimately run.”

NEXT: Romney unsure about Iowa, and, What Palin has to do here if she’s serious

The political chatter is that Romney is unsure whether he wants to go all out in Iowa, given his experience in 2008, when his aggressive outreach in the state could not soften the skepticism of a GOP electorate with strong Protestant flavor that made his Mormon faith a question mark.

“They’re deciding how much to put in. I know they feel burned,” the state official said.

But Ron Kaufman, a Washington lobbyist who is a close adviser to Romney, shrugged off such concerns.

“We are so focused, like a laser beam, on helping Republican candidates in 10. And 12 will take care of itself,” Kaufman said. “We’ll worry about 12 after 10.”

Palin has said she will not make a decision on whether to run until after the midterm elections, though many political observers think that because of her immense celebrity and the intensity of her base, she could wait to announce anything until halfway through 2011.

Nonetheless, Iowa Republicans said, if she wants to have success here, she will need to start soon in communicating regularly with the roughly 120,000 Republican caucus-goers, through mail, e-mail and in-person visits to the state, with a special focus on the 2,500 or so county chairs and precinct captains among them.

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