CPAC: Will Sarah Palin spring a surprise?
At last year's CPAC gathering, the mere sight of a Sarah Palin impersonator was enough to throw some attendees into a star-struck frenzy.
Such was Palin's clout among conservative activists in February 2011, just a few months after she played a critical role in the 2010 midterms and when she was stoking speculation about her own presidential ambitions.
This year, CPAC attendees won't have to settle on a doppelganger, as the former Alaska governor is slated to deliver the event's keynote address on Saturday.
But, with the Michigan and Arizona primaries looming at the end of the month and Super Tuesday following them in early March, how much impact will her words have on race?
With Palin having receded from the headlines -- and her influence having waned within the Republican Party -- the reception her speech receives will be a test of how much sway she retains in the grass-roots movement she personified not so long ago.
Though the "rogue" politician is always liable to spring a surprise, a source inside Palin's orbit said she would not endorse a presidential candidate in her speech but would instead aim to unify the conservative movement.
Despite her lower profile in recent months, Palin has left a mark on this presidential cycle through her frequent TV appearances on the Fox News Channel, which she conducts from a home studio in Alaska.
But Palin's CPAC address will be her first public foray outside her home state since she delivered an early November speech in Orlando to the Republican Party of Florida.
Though she has stopped short of endorsing him outright, Palin has been acting as a quasi-surrogate for Newt Gingrich of late and urged Republican voters before the South Carolina and Florida primaries to cast their votes for the former House speaker.
But she has also said positive things about Rick Santorum, and the former Pennsylvania senator's three victories on Tuesday could complicate her advocacy of Gingrich.
Palin's husband, Todd, who endorsed Gingrich last month, is not expected to travel with her to Washington, since he is training for the annual Iron Dog snowmobile race in Alaska, which begins in nine days.
Though she has gone out of her way to praise Gingrich and Santorum, Palin has increasingly raised doubts about Mitt Romney and pushed back against perceptions that the national GOP front-runner is the party's inevitable nominee.
"That glowing enthusiasm isn't there yet," Palin told Greta Van Susteren earlier this week. "I believe a lot of that is in part the idea that it's a forgone conclusion that Mitt Romney will be the GOP pick. He certainly has the establishment support and much of the media support. I also believe that he is the one that President Obama would love to debate and to run against in November."
If Palin criticizes Romney even more overtly in her CPAC speech, it could heighten the difficulties the former Massachusetts governor already faces in winning over enough grass-roots conservatives to seal the nomination soon.
No matter how much her influence may have waned, Palin's presence figures to be the talk of the conference on Saturday.
And though there was little pronounced enthusiasm for her impending speech as CPAC opened Thursday, many of the former vice presidential nominee's most ardent supporters plan to descend on the event this weekend -- a presence that surely will bolster the energy level.
Michelle McCormick -- who temporarily moved to Iowa from her native Texas to help organize for a Palin presidential campaign that never occurred -- will be among those arriving in Washington on Friday.
McCormick said that she would love to see Palin become more active in the presidential race but understood if the former governor wanted to spend time with her family instead and stay outside the ring.
"I know a lot of people out there think her star has completely faded, and realistically it's probably been knocked down a little bit, but I think everyone's going to be interested to hear what she has to say," McCormick said. "To be honest with you, there's no one out there who's saying anything that fits the mood of the Republican electorate right now, and even though she's not running, she might be able to at least drive the conversation like she was able to do with crony capitalism."
Indeed, the anti-crony capitalism screed that Palin unveiled in a Labor Day weekend speech in Iowa became a frequently repeated mantra among almost all of the GOP presidential candidates.
Though she is sure to unleash some of her famously fiery rhetoric on the CPAC crowd, those eager for her to get behind a particular candidate could come away disappointed.
Palin's speech is more likely to be an indicator of whether she intends to increase her presence in the race going forward.
"Gov. Palin's been very adamant: The process should continue, we need more vetting, and it only helps the further we go into the process," said Steve Bannon, the filmmaker behind the pro-Palin documentary, "The Undefeated." "If you go back and look at what she said and when she said it and how she said it, she's been once again very good at foretelling how this thing has developed."
More from RealClearPolitics:
Popular in Politics
- Obama prom pictures surface 126 Comments
- Is President Obama ending the war on terror? 258 Comments
- IRS' Lerner was asked to resign, refused: GOP Sen. 109 Comments
- Now, some unions upset over Obamacare
- IRS official Lois Lerner placed on leave 130 Comments
- GOP Rep.: Obama elected because of Reagan's immigration reforms
- Obama forgets to salute while boarding Marine One Play Video
- Rand Paul uses 2016 bully pulpit to push Obama on drones