Sarah Palin didn’t announce her candidacy for president Saturday at a Tea Party gathering in Iowa. But she did complicate matters for front-runner Texas Gov. Rick Perry, suggesting an actual strategy may be at work: If Perry stumbles, she might get into the race. But don’t bet on it.

Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) might want to sent Palin some flowers. She did an enormous favor for them in making the argument against “crony capitalism,” one of the most potent arguments against Perry. As this report observed:

“We’re celebrating red, white and blue America!” she began her speech, amid the sounds of cheering and what sounded suspiciously like a vuvuzela. After painting a dire picture of the American economy as it stands today, she railed against President Obama: “Is this what you call winning the future? I call it losing the country!” She told the crowd that the President had “awakened a sleeping America” and that while the nation was “about to lose the blessing of liberty and prosperity,” the “working people of this country . . . got up off the couch” (from which they were presumably working) to take back the country.

All the anti-big-government capitalism talk that many predicted was also in the speech, though not necessarily directly against Perry. “We are government by a political class, until we change them,” she told the crowd, reminding them that “I’ve seen this kind of crony capitalism before” in Alaska — “the same little-boy politics” that is common in governor’s positions.

The night before, she made much the same pitch to her fans, as the Los Angeles Times reported:

The evening before her big “Tea Party” speech in Indianola, Iowa, Sarah Palin arrived to raucous cheers and no small amount of delighted surprise at a meet-up of Conservatives4Palin in a sprawling restaurant just outside Des Moines. . . .

Many in the crowd had arrived by bus from Texas, which seems to be a particular stronghold of Palin supporters, despite the fact that the state’s governor, Rick Perry, is the presumptive leader in the race for the 2012 Republican nomination.

“Perry represents crony capitalism,” said Mai Duong, a naturalized citizen from Vietnam who is an accountant in Houston. Duong, who emigrated in 1994 and became a U.S. citizen 10 years later, said she was never political before the 2008 presidential campaign.

Perry’s campaign should take note. Perry’s name is quickly becoming linked to “crony capitalism,” so that voters and media assume an attack on the latter is actually an attack on Perry. His camp will want to quickly end that word association.

Palin’s theme — both directly anti-Obama and subtly anti-Perry — makes sense substantively as well as politically. Palin is right that trading Obama’s green-jobs racket for the sort of tech funds Perry championed in Texas wouldn’t be much of an improvement. And her call for an end to corporate loopholes and corporate welfare (although with no specifics) is a cogent free-market argument that identifies targets for debt reduction.

Politically, this line of attack is effective because it smudges Perry’s Tea Party image. If Palin does want to get into the race or even if she just wants to preserve her own primacy as the true Tea Party champion, she’ll need to keep throwing darts at the man who would be king, or at least leader, of both the Tea Party and the GOP. And perhaps that is what this is all about. Palin might be willing to (or out of necessity, forced to) give up her presidential aspirations so long as she remains the leader of the populist movement with which she is so closely identified. In that regard, one might suspect that she’d rather that neither Tea Party-type candidate (Perry or Bachmann) gets the nomination. But for now one thing is certain: Palin has set the stage for Wednesday’s debate and offered a helping hand to Perry’s challengers.