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MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Conservative Sarah Palin returned to the U.S. political arena on Saturday after several months absence with a feisty speech attacking both the establishment Republican Party and Democratic President Barack Obama and proclaiming "the 2012 elections begin here."
In a move apparently aimed at keeping her name in the running for the Republican nomination in next year's presidential election, Palin addressed several thousand people in Wisconsin, a state bitterly divided by a political fight over union rights.
Palin has been mostly absent from politics since the January shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, when she was criticized for accusing opponents of manufacturing a "blood libel" against her.
That absence has seen her standing slide among potential frontrunners for the Republican nomination.
As snow and sleet fell on Madison's main square, Palin attacked the budget compromise between Republicans and Obama on cuts of around $38 billion instead of $100 billion promised by Republicans in elections last November.
"That is not courage, that is capitulation," she said, adding that a recent bruising battle in Wisconsin over union bargaining rights provided a number of lessons.
"We didn't elect you just to rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking Titanic," she said. "We didn't elect you just to stand back and watch Obama redistribute those deck chairs."
While former governors Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty have announced they hope to be candidates to challenge Obama, Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, has not said whether she will seek the Republican nomination for president.
By coming to Madison, the scene of mass demonstrations over a bill to limit union bargaining rights that Governor Scott Walker and local Republicans passed in March, Republican strategists said Palin was guaranteed media exposure.
"In the past couple of months Michele Bachmann has sucked up much of the Sarah Palin oxygen in the Republican Party," said Whit Ayres, president of Ayres, McHenry & Associates, which provides research and advice for Republican candidates.
"This seems to be a way to keep her name out there and the venue appears to be designed to give her maximum exposure."
Palin took fresh aim at the media, which she has frequently accused of attacking her unfairly.
"Hey media, it's not inciting violence and it's not hateful rhetoric to call someone out on their record," she said in a reference to criticism aimed at her after Gifford's shooting. Her past comments include the refrain "don't retreat, reload."
Palin has been largely invisible since then and a March 25 Gallup Poll saw her support fall to 12 percent from 16 percent. Meanwhile Republican Representative Michele Bachmann has been carving out a role as a Tea Party favorite.
Among the crowd in Madison, Sarah Slye, 60, a grandmother of five who held a sign saying "Grandma is a right-wing extremist," said she would vote for Palin for president.
"But I don't think she would get a fair shot from the media," she said. "She stands for what she believes in."
Tim Wersland, 44, an iron worker holding a sign that read "I'd rather guzzle the Kool-Aid than sip the tea" said Palin was like all other Republican politicians.
"They say they want Americans to have jobs. But what they mean is they want us all to have two or three jobs to get by."
Editing by Alistair Bell and Chris Wilson