Real Clear Politics
By Scott Conroy
WASHINGTON -- Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will travel to Iowa next month as part of her nationwide bus tour, two sources with direct knowledge of the plan told RealClearPolitics.
Palin's trip to the nation's first voting state -- where she has not yet set foot this year --will further escalate the already feverish speculation that she is leaning toward a White House run.
Though Palin has insisted that her "One Nation" bus tour -- being kicked off from Washington over the holiday weekend -- is intended merely to "highlight America's foundation," RCP has learned that the road trip was designed as a test run to find out whether she can execute a decidedly unconventional campaign game plan.
Palin -- and especially her husband, Todd -- is said to be leaning toward running. But multiple sources said that their foremost remaining concern was whether it would be logistically feasible for their large family to hit the road together for the next several months in a prospective campaign that would rely heavily on bus travel.
The answer to that question will play a critical role in how the 2012 race develops.
For months, the prospective candidates for the Republican nomination for president have methodically lined up donors, hired operatives, and laid the groundwork in early-voting states to set the gears in motion for their painstakingly planned campaigns.
Eager to avoid burning through resources and peaking too early, the GOP White House hopefuls have, for the most part, eased incrementally into a slowly developing race, while eyeing one another warily.
Enter Sarah Palin in a black leather jacket, cruising through the nation's capital on a Harley-Davidson. "I love that smell of the emissions!" she told the crowd as she kicked off her tour at the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally on Sunday.
And with that, the question arises: Could Palin leave some of the less charismatic candidates in the dust?
A political Merry Prankster, Palin clearly relishes her unique ability to confound and surprise her prospective opponents, as she test-drives a possible presidential run that she and her team -- with a discernible wink -- have publicly billed as something akin to a mere sightseeing trip.
Though her weaknesses as a candidate remain evident, Palin's intrinsic strengths are often overlooked by Beltway Republicans and Washington pundits alike. NBC's "Meet the Press" roundtable on Sunday was a case study in how Palin figures to benefit from the GOP establishment's continued capacity to underestimate her unique ability to give a shot in the arm to a snoozer of a campaign season, while simultaneously revving up her fervent political base.
"I don't see Sarah Palin getting into the race at all," Republican consultant Alex Castellanos said of the prospective candidate who has appeared more eager than just about anyone to hit the campaign trail. "I don't think there's a place for her."
New York Times' op-ed columnist David Brooks added that Palin had not even notified key Republican Party figures in New Hampshire about her upcoming visit to the first-in-the-nation primary state. To those familiar with Palin's political rise in Alaska, this lack of a heads-up to local party officials would not come as a surprise. Yet expectations remain in many circles that she must eventually learn to play by the traditional rulebook.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum will enter the race officially this week, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is expected to join them shortly. But as the Palin Express kicks into high gear, the dynamics of the campaign may soon shift entirely.
One candidate who may be particularly threatened by Palin is former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has long been treated as top-tier contender -- even as he has continued to poll in the low single digits both nationally and in the early voting states. Pawlenty has positioned himself as someone who can appeal to a broad range of the GOP electorate, but as a still largely unknown former governor, his efforts to build name recognition and generate media attention have suddenly gotten a whole lot trickier with Palin back in the limelight.
If Palin does enter the race, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario by which Romney -- the presumed national front-runner who already enjoys high name recognition -- might be better able make a case for coalescing the Republican establishment around his candidacy, in an effort to stave off an unpredictable insurgent who figures to "go rogue" on the party machinery that she so detests.
But Romney still has a long way to go before he can claim a stranglehold on the establishment, and Pawlenty and other viable contenders will remain right on his heels.
The level of political momentum that her nationwide bus tour will generate is still unknown, and Palin's image problems with large swaths of the electorate remain glaring. But her reemergence has made clear at least one reality: rumors of Sarah Palin's demise have been greatly exaggerated.