Palin Harley Ride Starts Campaign-Style Tour as GOP Race Revs Up

Sarah Palin’s ride through Washington on a Harley-Davidson Inc. motorcycle yesterday as part of the Rolling Thunder “Ride for Freedom” put her back in the national spotlight as the race for the Republican presidential nomination is revving up.

The former Alaska governor joined about 400,000 bikers for the annual ride, which coincided with the first leg of a bus tour that is renewing speculation about her 2012 White House ambitions.

Palin, who had no official speaking role at the event, arrived wearing a helmet and rode on the back of a Harley from the Pentagon toward the Vietnam War Memorial. Rolling Thunder, which began in 1988, was established by Vietnam veterans to draw attention to missing service members and prisoners of war. Palin’s husband, Todd, and daughters Piper and Bristol also took part in the ride.

In a posting on her political action committee website, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate said Rolling Thunder, through the roar of tens of thousands of bike engines, keeps alive the Memorial Day spirit of honoring veterans.

“I love that smell of emissions,” Palin told Fox News at yesterday’s rally.

Palin’s campaign-style “One Nation Tour” by bus from Washington through New England could be a prelude to a bid for the Republican nomination -- or an effort to command the spotlight as the competition heats up.

“Is this bus tour a trial run for a planned race, or is it an attempt to remain visible and relevant?” asked Charlie Cook, publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “You can count all the people who really know what Sarah Palin is thinking and planning on one hand.”

Republican Field

Other Republicans are formalizing their plans. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty entered the race May 23 with an announcement in Des Moines. Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, visited Iowa Friday for the first time this year, and his campaign says he will announce his candidacy on June 2.

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is expected to do the same on June 6, U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has said she will make her intentions known in June, and Texas Governor Rick Perry said on May 27 he’s “thinking about” running. Also declared as candidates are Representative Ron Paul of Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and Herman Cain, the former chairman of Godfather’s Pizza.

Not Running

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, real estate developer Donald Trump, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee have all announced in recent weeks that they wouldn’t enter the contest.

Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 on a message of socially conservative populism, so his decision not to run provides an opening for a candidate such as Palin or Bachmann, who have both built a similar political brand, said Cook.

“I suspect that Palin sees herself as having created this space, she views Bachmann as an upstart and interloper,” Cook said. “Conversely, Bachmann may see herself as intellectually superior and more qualified than Palin.”

Palin has limited her public appearances over the past several months to her role as a paid analyst for Fox News and to occasional posts on Facebook and Twitter; she did little to build formal campaign operations in early voting states such as Iowa.

Hiring Staff

Indications she may be serious about a bid include hiring additional staff and finishing a two-hour biographical documentary. She has also purchased a home for about $1.7 million in Scottsdale, Arizona, which could become a campaign base, according to reports from news organizations such as the Wall Street Journal and the Arizona Republic.

“She certainly is a major factor,” Senator John McCain of Arizona, who as the Republican presidential candidate in 2008 chose Palin as his running mate, said on “Fox News Sunday” today. “Whether she’ll even run or not, I don’t know.”

Before getting on her motorcycle, Palin mingled with the bikers, surveying the tattoos of one and accepting a rally souvenir patch from another.

Ted Shpak, Rolling Thunder national legislative director, said May 27 on MSNBC that Palin hadn’t been invited and that the group doesn’t endorse candidates. “We can’t stop her from coming to ride,” Shpak said.

“If she wants to ride, that’s fine,” he said. “It is a big distraction” because “we’re not political.”

‘Smart Political Move’

Rolling Thunder director Artie Muller said on CNN yesterday that she was welcome to join the ride.

“It’s a smart political move on her part,” said Kristina Skirving, a 42-year-old from Charleston, South Carolina. “She’s all about guns and America. She knows there’s a lot of patriotic people here whose vote she could get.”

Tim Crawford, a Palin spokesman and the treasurer of SarahPAC, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Some Republican insiders doubt that Palin will run, said Dan Schnur, a former adviser to McCain during his campaign in 2000 for the Republican presidential nomination.

As a candidate, Palin would lose her $1 million-a-year Fox contract, and she would have to scale back her paid speaking schedule. A political loss could also put at risk any future earnings potential.

‘Shadow Candidate’

“She’s smart enough to understand that the longer she waits before making an announcement, the more visible she’s going to be and the more influence she is going to have,” Schnur said. “Being a shadow candidate can be a lot more fun for her.”

Palin has said repeatedly that she has not made up her mind about 2012. In October, she said she would run “if there’s nobody else to do it.” In March, she told a Fox News host she was “tempted” to run.

For her “One Nation Tour,” Palin has chartered a red, white and blue bus for what the SarahPAC website describes as “our new campaign to educate and energize Americans about our nation’s founding principles, in order to promote the fundamental restoration of America.”

Poll Numbers

A Gallup poll released May 26 showed Palin virtually tied with Romney in a national survey of Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters. Romney was supported by 17 percent and Palin by 15 percent. The poll was taken May 20-24 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. A Gallup poll a month earlier put her at 10 percent.

Her unfavorable ratings are high; a Quinnipiac University poll released May 4 found that 58 percent of those surveyed said they would never vote for Palin for president.

Other potential candidates include former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who resigned his post as U.S. ambassador to China on April 30, and former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, a Democrat-turned-Republican.

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