* Palin warns of new era of big government
* At Reagan celebration, says government has lost way
SANTA BARBARA, Calif., Feb 4 (Reuters) - Republican Sarah Palin said on Friday an explosion of government spending and debt under President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats had put the United States on "the road to ruin."
In a tribute to former President Ronald Reagan, the potential 2012 White House contender said leaders in Washington had lost sight of the values that made Reagan a Republican icon and a hero to conservatives -- a belief in limited government, low taxes and personal freedoms.
"This is not the road to national greatness, it is the road to ruin," Palin said of the growth in government spending, budget deficits, joblessness and housing foreclosures under Obama. "The federal government is spending too much, borrowing too much, growing and controlling too much," she said.
Palin said Obama had revived the era of big government, and she ridiculed the infrastructure spending and investment he outlined in his recent State of the Union speech.
"The only thing these investments will get us is a bullet train to bankruptcy," the 2008 vice presidential candidate said in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, California, part of two days of festivities marking the late president's 100th birthday.
Reagan served two terms as president beginning in 1981, and his belief in limited government, reduced taxes and military strength has been the dominant political doctrine of his Republican Party ever since.
His legacy gained new momentum in the last year with the growth of the conservative grassroots Tea Party movement, which has focused on a push for limited government and reduced government spending.
Like virtually all Republican Party leaders, Palin and many of the other possible Republican candidates to unseat Obama go to great lengths to stress their belief in Reagan's principle.
But Palin said the Republican search for the next Reagan would never be successful. "He was one of a kind," she said.
Palin focused in particular on a Reagan speech during conservative Barry Goldwater's losing 1964 presidential campaign, titled "A Time for Choosing."
'AT A CROSSROADS'
That speech brought Reagan, a Hollywood actor, to the attention of conservatives and helped catapult him to two terms as California governor and eventually to the White House.
She said the speech, which warned of the dangers of big government and Democratic President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" social programs, was still relevant. "We are at a crossroads," she said, "and this is a time of choosing."
Palin's tribute to Reagan kicked off a weekend of celebrations to mark what would have been Reagan's 100th birthday on Sunday, including speeches, video tributes and a Beach Boys concert at the Reagan library in nearby Simi Valley.
His wife Nancy Reagan, 89, will lay a wreath at his grave on Sunday, and Reagan will be the subject of a video salute before the Super Bowl football game.
Even Democrats have joined in the tributes. Reagan, who died in 2004 at age 93, had "a gift for communicating his vision to America," Obama said in a salute published in the USA Today newspaper.
Palin, who visited Reagan's ranch on Friday afternoon, has adopted bits of his personal style, from his folksy manner of speaking to frequent references to faith and religion.
But she has been a lightning rod for liberal critics for her inflammatory speeches and political commentary on the Fox News Channel.
Last month, she accused critics of "blood libel" in linking her inflammatory rhetoric to a deadly Arizona shooting spree, igniting another in a series of firestorms around her.
The "blood libel" phrase, which refers to a false, centuries-old allegation that Jews were killing children to use their blood in religious rituals, has been employed for centuries to justify the killing or expulsion of Jews.
Palin made no reference to that controversy, the Arizona shooting or the uprising in Egypt during the Reagan speech, focusing her remarks on his continuing relevance today.
"If history teaches us anything, it's that bad ideas are never gone for good," she said. (Editing by Todd Eastham)