Does Sarah Palin's bus tour mean she's serious about running?

The intensity of feeling about Sarah Palin would make her an atypical presidential candidate. That worries some conservatives, and it leaves some Democrats hoping she'll run.

Steven Senne/AP
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin poses for photos with a school group visiting the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, Thursday, June 2, 2011.

As Sarah Palin wound down her bus tour to historic sites in the Northeast, she felt the need to set the record straight on a couple of things.

For one, she wasn’t intentionally interfering with Mitt Romney’s official declaration, even if her entourage happened to find itself just down the road in New Hampshire. She apologized about that.

And two, she was right when she said Paul Revere was warning the British not to disarm those patriotic colonialists, no matter what historians said about Revere avoiding the British as he rode to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that they might be arrested.

But bus tour kerfuffles aside, the question remains: Is Palin serious about running, albeit in highly unconventional fashion, or is this all merely a way to tout her highly lucrative brand … or both?

Winning the presidency is a two-step process. Here the steps are very different, and this explains why Palin remains in the race whether or not she ever declares her candidacy.

Among the general public, her favorability ratings range from no more than 36 percent to as low as 20 percent, according to recent polls.

But among Republicans – that is to say, those who will pick their party’s candidate – she does much, much better: from 55 percent to as high as 68 percent view her favorably.

Another set of numbers could be a plus or a minus for Palin, depending on one’s point of view.

Intensity of support

Gallup measures “intensity” of feeling about potential candidates. Among Republicans it polled, Gallup found that 22 percent have a strongly favorable opinion of Palin, compared to 17 percent for Romney. At the same time, however, 8 percent of Republicans surveyed have a strongly unfavorable opinion of Palin, compared to just 3 percent for Romney.

“Palin, in short, stirs up the waters and creates more controversy,” says Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport. “Romney’s profile is quite positive but not as intense as Palin’s.”

At the moment, Palin is the 400-pound Mama Grizzly in the race – especially for Romney, the generally presumed front-runner.

With both of them in a theoretical nomination contest, they’re neck-and-neck among Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents (17 percent for Romney, 15 percent for Palin) with the rest of the hopefuls lined up well behind in single digits.

But if Palin were to say that she won’t run, Romney rises to 19 percent with nobody else closer than 7 percentage points behind.

New Hampshire showdown

That’s why Palin rankled Romney supporters when her tour bus – and its mad-dash press gaggle – went to New Hampshire just as Romney was officially launching his candidacy there.

Casting a shadow on his moment in the sun? Oh no, Palin told Fox News Sunday, “I didn't mean to step on anybody's toes.”

Meanwhile, some conservatives – reflecting this intensity of feeling that Gallup detects – are speaking out about the dangers of a Palin candidacy.

Looking at her unfavorability ratings, Commentary magazine blogger Peter Wehner says, “These numbers are dreadful…. If Palin were to be the GOP nominee, she would lead the ticket to a crushing loss for Republicans at almost every level.”

“It’s certainly true that some of the criticisms of Palin have been unfair and driven by an almost irrational animus toward her,” writes Wehner, who worked in the Reagan and both Bush administrations. “She is not a woman without talents, including the ability to generate media attention and excitement among some elements of the GOP base.”

“But it’s also true that she has brought much of the criticisms on herself,” he continues. “Palin radiates a sense of grievance that is antithetical to the Reagan style and spirit. And in interviews and on matters of policy, she often comes across as shallow. The problem isn’t that she’s not a public intellectual; it’s that she doesn’t seem able to sustain an argument beyond simply reciting talking points.”

Palin good for Democrats?

Some Democrats salivate over the prospect of a Palin nomination. No intellectual match for Obama, they say. Prone to verbal gaffes. Easy to mock.

Others warn not to be so dismissive.

“She wouldn’t be my first choice if I were a Republican but I think she could win,” says former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean.

“Any time you have a contest – particularly when unemployment is as high as it is – nobody gets a walkover,” Dean told The Hill newspaper. “Whoever the Republicans nominate, including people like Sarah Palin, whom the inside-the-Beltway crowd dismisses – my view is if you get the nomination of a major party, you can win the presidency, I don’t care what people write about you inside the Beltway.”

Neither does Sarah Palin.

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