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DES MOINES (Reuters) - Will Sarah Palin use her "Tea Party" power to launch a run for president in 2012? Nobody knows, but her trip to Iowa on Friday may provide some clues.
Palin speaks at the Iowa Republican Party's Ronald Reagan Dinner in Des Moines, her influence among Tea Party activists strong after conservative candidates she backed won in Delaware and New Hampshire Senate primary races on Tuesday.
The former Alaska governor, who was Republican Senator John McCain's vice presidential running mate in the 2008 campaign, remains coy about whether she will join what could be a long list of challengers to Democratic President Barack Obama.
But her visit to Iowa for a speech at a high-profile party fund-raising event for November 2 congressional elections fed speculation that the self-styled "hockey mom" might seek the White House in 2012.
Iowa and New Hampshire cast the first votes in presidential nominating campaigns and potential candidates routinely stop in each state in hopes of propelling themselves into the national spotlight.
"I think what she's doing there is what she's doing in a lot of places -- she's tickling the political community. I think for any politician to show up in Iowa is to fuel speculation," said David Yepsen, a longtime Iowa watcher who is director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
Palin, admired by many conservatives, is not viewed favorably by a large segment of the American electorate.
Her visit got the attention of the White House where spokesman Robert Gibbs called Palin "a formidable force in the Republican Party and may well be, in all honesty, the most formidable force in the Republican Party right now."
Does the White House interpret her trip as a first step in a run for the presidency?
"It is normally around this time of year that you go to dip your toe in the water (in Iowa). My guess is that she is going to dip that toe," said Gibbs.
Asked whether Obama viewed Palin as a potential threat for 2012, Gibbs said Obama did not spend much time thinking about 2012.
The Republican lineup for 2012 will start forming late this year and in early 2011. As many as a dozen aspirants are possible.
Palin has helped roil Republican politics this year by backing anti-establishment candidates in primary elections, many of whom won on a platform of cutting government spending and taxes, causes supported by Tea Party activists.
A prime example was her backing of Christine O'Donnell, who defeated heavily favored Mike Castle in a Republican primary election for a Delaware Senate seat this week.
Republicans are expected to turn voter worries about the economy and Obama's leadership into big gains in congressional elections in November that could give them control of the House and, perhaps, even the Senate.
"During the primary season, she has dramatically strengthened the view that she could win the party's presidential nomination, because her base is the Tea Party base and they keep winning key primaries," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
If Palin runs, said Sabato, "it would be the best news Democrats could possibly have."
While popular among conservatives, Palin still has a long way to go with other Americans. A CBS News poll on Thursday said 46 percent of American voters viewed Palin unfavorably, compared with 21 percent who have a favorable opinion of her and 33 percent who are undecided.
Palin promotes a traditional Republican low-tax, pro-business economic policy and aggressive foreign policy.
Saul Anuzis, a Republican Party member from Michigan, said Palin was clearly keeping her options open by visiting Iowa.
He has his doubts whether she would actually run, considering her lucrative career as a conservative voice, making speeches and writing a second book.
"I'm just guessing," said Anuzis. "I think it's more likely she doesn't than she does. but I think it's a possibility."
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin; editing by Christopher Wilson