DES MOINES, Iowa -- The Iowa Republican Party freely admitted that this year's Reagan Day Dinner would not have been quite the same without Sarah Palin.
"We anticipate that it will be the largest and best attended Reagan Dinner that the party has had in recent years," state Republican chairman Matt Strawn said in an interview.
As it was, 50 news organizations and some 1,000 dinner guests came to the auditorium in downtown Des Moines to hear from the woman who is more than the belle of the Republican ball these days.
"She is a formidable force and may be the most formidable force in the Republican Party," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on Friday.
Of course, the Democrats may have a vested interest in promoting the former Alaska governor whose poll numbers have been declining this summer and whose electability, at this point, is an open question. Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe scoffed the other day that Palin is the best organizer and fundraiser the Democrats in Iowa could have.
But Democrats have belittled opponents in the past who turned their grins into frowns on election day. Ronald Reagan comes quickly to mind as an "un-electable" former actor who nonetheless ousted a sitting president in the first of two landslide elections.
Palin was greeted warmly by the Republicans here. And she said what they wanted to hear.
"We don't need to fundamentally transform America," said said. "We need to restore America."Interactive Map: CBS News Election 2010 Race Ratings
She arrived in Iowa amid much speculation about her future plans, given the fact that Iowa holds the first actual voting contest -- the caucuses -- in the presidential nominating process every four years.
"By going to Iowa, Sarah Palin gets to keep all of her options open," explained CBS News political analyst John Dickerson. "She can be a Republican kingmaker and she can start paving the way for a possible presidential run."
And she definitely has had an impact. Her list of favored candidates -- many of them insurgents supported by the amorphous Tea Party movement -- has been lengthening by the week. Her latest achievement,in Delaware's GOP senate primary.
"The [party] hierarchy, they're not likin' it," Palin said Thursday while stumping for another of her endorsements, Rand Paul, in Kentucky.
And yet while Palin is undeniably popular with the Republican base, many of the party faithful say they don't think she is presidential timber. They may be holding out to see the second coming of Mitt Romney, a failed candidate in 2008, but who is returning to the state next month. Or there is Tim Pawlenty, the governor of neighboring Minnesota. He has hired staff on the ground here in Iowa and has made several trips to the state. Or there is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who party pros here say has been working the hardest, visiting here seven times in recent months.
Palin's seeming preference for the well-paid big speeches over the hand-to-hand slogging that Iowans appreciate so much could be a problem if she decides to make the race. That may account for a finding in our recent CBS News-New York Times poll that by 67 to 18 percent, Americans believe she is more interested in staying in the public eye than electing conservatives.
"If a candidate is thinking they can run a sort of celebrity candidacy rather than a true grassroots presidential campaign, they're going to be sadly mistaken," said Eric Woolson, who ran Mike Huckabee's victorious caucus campaign here in 2008.
"She's going to need to make it clear that she's willing to put in the hours and to put in the visits to Iowa," he said. And though Palin employs Twitter and Facebook effectively to get her message out, 140 characters won't be a good way to connect with Iowans, Woolson cautioned.
For now though Palin is urging Republicans to stay focused on the immediate goal: the midterm elections.
"We can't wait until 2012 to get our country on the right track," she said. "We need to start now by electing strong leaders who aren't afraid to shake it up, to rein in the federal government. It's time for no more business as usual.
"It's time to take our country back."
Dean Reynolds is a CBS News correspondent based in Chicago.
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