By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010; 6:02 PM
DES MOINES - Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin will deliver the keynote speech at the Iowa Republican Party's Ronald Reagan Dinner on Friday night in a move that has rekindled speculation about a possible 2012 run for president.
Hours before her speech, Palin gave another hint that she is open to running in 2012. In an interview with Fox News, she said that, if the American people were ready "for someone willing to shake it up...of course I would give it a shot." She quickly added that she believes she can help shake things up without a title. "I'm having a good time doing exactly that right now," she said.
Palin's Iowa appearance drew comment from the White House, where Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said at his daily briefing he believes the former governor is likely to dip her toes into the presidential water. "I have no doubt that she is a formidable force in the Republican Party and may well be, in all honesty, the most formidable force in the Republican Party right now," he told reporters.
Palin will be in Iowa at the end of a week in which she once again demonstrated her influence in the party by backing two winning candidates in hard-fought primaries: Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire.
But the closing days of the primary season have brought renewed focus on the divisions within the GOP between the party establishment and "tea party" activists who have defied the leadership repeatedly in primary contests
Since Tuesday's primary, Palin has called on Republicans to put their intraparty battles aside and unite for the general election. She posted the following on Twitter: "Independents/GOP: focus. The weakened Leftist party is the pt; it allows unified effort 2 reign in Fed govt's overreach&protect Constitution."
Palin has been on both sides of the battles inside the party this year, backing tea party candidates in some states and establishment candidates in others. O'Donnell had strong support from tea party activists in her victory over Rep. Michael Castle on Tuesday. Ayotte, however, was considered the establishment choice, although Palin had dubbed her a "Granite Grizzly" when she made the endorsement.
Palin's highest-profile support for an establishment candidate in a primary came in Arizona, where she backed Sen. John McCain, who brought her to national prominence by selecting her as his 2008 vice presidential running mate. McCain easily defeated former representative J.D. Hayworth. In Iowa, she endorsed former governor Terry Branstad, the establishment candidate, in his winning primary over the more conservative Bob Vander. In Alaska, however, she backed tea party-favorite Joe Miller against Sen. Lisa Murkowski and came out a winner in that choice.
Friday's speech will be Palin's first visit to Iowa this year, and there is considerable speculation about how she will use the high-profile platform and what kind of speech she will choose to deliver.
Compared with some other potential 2012 candidates, Palin has spent little time in Iowa since she was McCain's vice presidential running mate in 2008. Some of her potential rivals have made multiple trips to the state whose caucuses will, as in the past, kick off the nominating season early in 2012.
Iowa GOP strategists said they doubted that her relative absence has cost her in any significant way. They described her as one of the few true stars in the party and able to command interest and attention with fewer visits than some of the others who might be mulling a presidential run.
But they also said that if she decides to run, she will have to be prepared for the kind of politics Iowa activists demand, with lots of visits and plenty of face-to-face time answering questions from voters.
Eric Woolson, a GOP strategist who ran former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee's winning campaign here in 2008, said there's a difference between Palin the celebrity and Palin the possible presidential candidate. "Those people who support her are very enthusiastic about her, but she's going to have to go to Algona, Shenandoah and Keokuk and she's going to have to do the work beyond that," he said.
Republicans here said that although Palin has star quality, she also faces obstacles, should she decide to run for president.
The poll also pitted Palin and five other possible Republican nominees against President Obama in hypothetical 2012 matchups. Palin did worse than any of the other potential Republican candidates.
A poll for the Des Moines Register in June found that Palin was well liked by the GOP's primary election voters, but not significantly different from other leading Republicans. Fifty-eight percent said they viewed her favorably, compared with 62 percent for Romney and 56 percent for Gingrich.
Interest in Palin's visit here Friday is strong. More than 1,000 people are expected to attend the dinner, according to Danielle Plogmann, communications director for the Iowa Republican Party. She said that is the biggest crowd for a Reagan Day dinner in recent memory.
The Des Moines Register reported in its Friday editions that more than 50 news organizations have asked for credentials for the dinner, including foreign press.