Perched on a stool at the Double Barrel Smokehouse in Las Vegas, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin surveyed the scene she had in some ways created.
Saddlng up in sparkly cowboy boots, she was here for the most recent Republican presidential debate, and the latest CNN poll had a decidedly Palin-esque flair. Donald Trump in first place with 41 percent of likely Republican primary voters. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was in second with 14 percent.
Both mavericks. Both purveyors of the brand of blue-collar Republican populism that she helped craft.
But how did the grand dame of the Republican insurgency view a race that seems to have her ideological fingerprints all over it?
"I'm not going to pick one right now, but what a nice problem to have if it came down to Cruz and Trump," Ms. Palin said. "That's a good problem for voters to have, because we know that, as you say, they are both strong and very decisive and someone who would take the initiative. That is what we need today, and both of those candidates would fit that bill."
The comment came as part of CNN's "Politics on Tap" – a discussion with host Jake Tapper billed as a lighthearted chat. And despite being more than 3,000 miles from her woodsy Wasilla home, it's no wonder she looked happy and at peace. Once a small town girl thrust into the national eye, she appears to be the same person she has always been: equally as relaxed holding a microphone or a musket.
And now, she's not the only one with her sights fixed firmly on the Republican establishment.
"There needs to be more of an exertion of independence from the candidates, and candidates not thinking that they need to be reliant on some kind of machine that is reliant on big donors essentially buying messages and buying votes," she advised. "Somehow the Republican Party has got to not marginalize someone like a Donald Trump, who is certainly the great example of being independent, but the Republican Party has got to convince the public that the candidate coming from our side of the aisle is running for the right reasons."
Mr. Trump and Palin seem connected, and in ways beyond rumors that he would offer her a cabinet position. They are bound by their ability to brand and blend their personalities into political popcorn: easy snacking, salty, digestive, ubiquitous.
She dodged hard-hitting questions, preferring to keep the chatter light and playful. It was also clear that she's still well-loved and admired as a voice of the conservative working class. Assembled admirers gushed afterwards about her warmth, eager for her to be back in political mix.
In a recent appearance on Palin's Mama Grizzly Radio, Trump drew out the comparison: "She really is somebody who knows what's happening," he said. "She's a special person. She has a following that is unbelievable. Everybody loves her! Well, she's like me. She has people that don't exactly love us, and we understand who they are and you sort of forget about that. She has a tremendously loyal group of people out there for her. I think now more so than ever. I'm looking at some of these candidates. They like the Sarah Palin kind of strength you just don't see much of anymore."
When asked about the prospect of Trump running as a third-party candidate, she pointed the blame on the Republican establishment for not treating him fairly and instilling fear in voters' minds, warning the Republican party "better not blow it!"
She defended him again when asked about his Muslim ban statement, noting that people need to be patient in hearing him out instead of "freaking out," she said. "I think that Trump was trying to finish the conversation that would lead to a pause on immigration in general, Jake. I think that's where he was going."
She didn't clear up any rumors of her taking a potential cabinet position, although her daughter Willow blurted out "Trump!" when her mother was asked who she liked most.