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N.H. voters meet Bachmann, talk about Palin

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DOVER, N.H. — When asked about Sarah Palin, who is now on a cross-country bus tour that is prompting as much confusion as it is speculation about her presidential ambitions, Republicans here smile and chuckle and shrug their shoulders as if to say, That’s Sarah.

They love her rebellious, unpredictable spirit. It’s also why they are less than enthusiastic that she might be among the crowd of Republicans vying to take on President Obama in 2012.

“Maybe the best scenario for Sarah — she won’t like this — is vice president with Michele at the top of the ticket,” said Marion Bartlett, a retired teacher who attended a GOP picnic here Monday, referring to another likely contender, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). “Because frankly, Sarah can sometimes get out of control.”

Bartlett was there to meet Bachmann, the latest presidential hopeful to swing through the state, which can help make or break a candidate because of its first-in-the-nation primary. Like Palin, Bachmann promotes herself as a proud mom and Christian who is as fiercely conservative on social issues as she is on the economy. Both are attractive and speak with a certain lilt.

Unlike Palin, Bachmann has not been able to draw adoring crowds of thousands, which is why some here worry she might not only overshadow the race but siphon away support from Bachmann, a candidate many believe is more serious about the job.

“Sarah will do what she is to do, which is what I love about her. You aren’t going to tell her to sit down and shut up,” said Patty Cleary, another retiree who came to see Bachmann. Still, she said, it concerned her that Palin is “somebody who the press will really promote because they know her. Michele Bachmann is someone that a whole lot of people may not know.”

That Palin will run is hardly a foregone conclusion. She recently told a reporter that she was still on the fence and has said her tour, which began Sunday with the former Alaska governor roaring into Washington on the back of a Harley, is not political. Indeed, a lot of people here are convinced that she will stay out of the race.

That is not to say they don’t want her to be involved in some way. They say Palin occupies an important niche in the party. Her ability to get people riled up is unmatched, they say, and her frankness and indomitable spirit set the right tone at a time when they feel their rights are being taken away. They think she can give the eventual nominee a boost with her endorsement and fundraising skill.

But they question her decision to step down from the governorship before the end of her term. They shake their heads at her missteps during the 2008 campaign, including a disastrous interview with CBS’s Katie Couric, and recall the enormously bad press she has a knack for attracting. And her stint as a reality television star only confirmed their suspicions that she is not serious about holding public office.

“I would rather see her as a spokesperson for our politicians rather than a leader of our party,” said Walt Shackford, a retiree in his 60s.

And then there is her confrontational attitude.

“I think the first person who breaks in and becomes the first woman president can’t have that tendency to erupt,” said Jan Biller, a nutrition consultant who also came out to see Bachmann on Monday.

For her part, Bachmann has said she does not see Palin as a direct threat and that no two candidates are interchangeable. For many of the voters here, it is simply thrilling to see two passionately conservative women as legitimate contenders for their party’s nomination.

And in the end, if Palin is the nominee, they say they will not hesitate to jump on board with her.

© The Washington Post Company