Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin says she has the “fire in the belly” to run for president in 2012. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

“I want to make sure America is put back on the right track and we only do that by defeating Obama in 2012,” Palin told van Susteren. She added that there were “practical, pragmatic” issues involving her large family that she had to address before making a final decision on the race.

Palin’s comments came after an extended period — perhaps the first extended period since she was picked as Arizona Sen. John McCain’s running mate in 2008 — in which she has been largely out of the headlines.

The lack of attention paid to Palin of late corresponded with a series of polls that suggest a growing segment of Republican primary voters had soured on her.

An example: A March Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Palin’s approval ratings dipping under 60 percent among self-identified Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

While Palin has slipped from the spotlight, however, two major — and recent — developments in the 2012 GOP field have created space for her should she choose to run.

First, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee decided not to run again in 2012, a decision that frees up a significant number of his supporters particularly in Iowa and South Carolina.

A Palin candidacy would be a natural home for former Huckabee voters — especially those who define themselves as social conservatives. Despite her recent struggles with some elements of the Republican party, Palin remains an iconic figure among many social conservatives.

If Palin could scoop up some significant chunk of Huckabee’s past supporters in Iowa, she would immediately be a serious contender in what now looks to be a wide open-race in the Hawkeye State. And, with social conservatives’ demonstrated power in the caucuses, Palin might even enter the Iowa race as a favorite.

Second, businessman Donald Trump’s somewhat predictable exit from the Republican race when coupled with Huckabee’s no-go decision means that the GOP field now lacks any sort of celebrity candidate.

Enter Palin who, no matter how you feel about her, is clearly a major political/pop culture celebrity. In a field without much star power, a Palin candidacy would immediately suck the media oxygen out of the room for the other contenders.

Put simply: Palin is the only potential candidate in the field who could go to Iowa tomorrow and have 5,000 people show up. That alone doesn’t win a nomination; just ask former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But it does guarantee that Palin would have a chance to make her case to early state voters.

Of course, when writing about Palin, it’s virtually impossible to add enough caveats to account for the un­or­tho­dox manner in which she approaches her political life.

Since she burst onto the national political scene in the fall of 2008, Palin has done little to build the sort of national political operation that is generally viewed as a necessary component for someone seriously considering a run for president.

Palin has also demonstrated a lack of message discipline that, while it endears her to her most ardent supporters, has also hurt her at times — the most obvious example being the “blood libel” controversy in the aftermath of the attempted assassination of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

We take Palin at her word that she has the requisite “fire in the belly” necessary to run. But does she have her mind wrapped around the mechanics of how (and if) she could turn intrigue over her and her family into actual votes?