WASHINGTON — Since former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin shot to fame after her 2008 vice presidential bid, she's kept her intentions — if not her ambitions — closely held.
But on Thursday, Palin's ambitions began to look increasingly presidential. Her political action committee announced that she'd launch a multi-state tour over the Memorial Day weekend, beginning at a motorcycle rally in Washington and winding its way up the East Coast to New Hampshire, the site of the nation's first presidential primary.
"I've said many times that America doesn't need a 'fundamental transformation,' " Palin said in an announcement on her website. "Instead we need a restoration of all that is good and strong and free in America! So, together let's prepare ourselves for the days ahead by reminding ourselves who we are and what Americans stand for."
Palin still hasn't officially announced a candidacy, but the evidence piled up this week. She told Fox News Channel that she had "fire in the belly" for a presidential bid. Her closest advisers confirmed that "The Undefeated," a flattering documentary by conservative filmmaker Stephen Bannon, would premiere next month in Iowa, the site of caucuses that are the nation's first presidential contest. She and her husband, Todd, even reportedly bought a house in Arizona, to have a more accessible home base in the Lower 48.
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And although Palin has said that filing deadlines, family considerations and the other aspiring officeholders in the field would shape her ultimate decision, the blue bus emblazoned with the motto "One Nation" left little question that the upcoming tour is but a precursor to a full campaign.
Palin's potential candidacy has been the biggest open question as the Republican presidential primary field has solidified in recent weeks. Her biggest potential rival on the far right, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, announced that he was out; meanwhile, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced that they're in.
Others who haven't made official announcements, such as 2008 contender and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, already are spending plenty of time in key primary states: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
"By and large, they know where she stands on a lot of issues," said Iowa's Steve Scheffler, a GOP national committeeman, who hasn't endorsed anyone. He's also the president of the conservative Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition.
"But I think Iowans rightfully expect their candidate to be vetted well, in small groups and one on one," he said. "If she's going to run, they'd very much like her to come here sooner rather than later."
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has been to New Hampshire at least 15 times already, said Jennifer Horn, the president of We the People, a conservative group.
"If she's serious about running, she has to get here," Horn said. "She doesn't have to make up ground so that people know who she is. She has to make it clear that she's serious about running. You've got to be up here and you've got to be playing on a regular basis. We expect personal commitment."
Palin's loose organization — she hired a chief of staff only recently — has led many establishment Republican figures to question whether she had enough people with the command of the logistics necessary to pull off a presidential bid. But that lack of a formal organization belies one of her greatest strengths, said one longtime observer from Alaska, Democratic pollster Ivan Moore.
Moore, who's been closely following opinion polls on a potential Palin bid, said the former governor has always had impeccable timing.
Among her enemies, "even if they don't credit her for much else, they credit her for having unerring political instinct," he said. "Maybe that's just the gift she has."
He pointed to a recent AP-GfK Poll that found Palin had a 59 percent unfavorable rating. It's "her highest ever negative," Moore said.
A Gallup poll from earlier this week found that Romney and Palin now lead a smaller field of potential GOP presidential candidates among rank-and-file Republicans. But no one is a runaway favorite yet; just over one-fifth of Republicans don't have preferences at this point, the poll found.
And while she may not have key pollsters, advisers or field organizers lined up, Palin made some smart endorsements last year that could pay dividends in 2012. After a Palin endorsement, candidates soared to victory in key states such as South Carolina and New Hampshire, and she was a popular campaigner in the reddest parts of Florida.
The endorsement that may prove to be the most important is in South Carolina, where Palin's backing of Nikki Haley propelled her from fourth place to first in a four-person field of GOP gubernatorial candidates. Haley, who's now South Carolina's governor, hasn't indicated how she'll lean. Neither has the state's aspiring conservative kingmaker Sen. Jim DeMint.
Having the right endorsement is crucial in South Carolina, said David Woodard, a Republican consultant and political science professor at Clemson University.
"It's not necessary to shake every hand and be in every county and go to every festival to make contact here," he said. "A lot of times it doesn't prove to be very effective in the end, anyway."
"Smart or lucky, I never know which is it, but she's in a very good position," he added. "She might reap a real bounty from it if the right people were to stand on the stage with her."
Palin also has a formidable and fervent social media following; more than 3 million people follow her on the social networking site Facebook. Her Facebook page erupted at the news of her bus tour. "Let's all meet at the Last Bus Stop — 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Jan 2013," wrote one Facebook follower.
Yet Democrats gearing up for President Barack Obama's re-election bid grinned at the possibility of Palin's entrance into the race.
"The more in the GOP field, the merrier," said Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.
(Lesley Clark contributed to this article.)
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