WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sarah Palin may not be officially seeking the Republican nomination for president, but she is making sure she stays within the party’s public eye.
Whether visiting the Iowa State Fair the day before the closely watched Iowa “straw poll” or roaring into Washington at a motorcycle rally to honor veterans, Palin has orchestrated her appearances in the focus of the Republican faithful.
Her political fund-raising has lagged, but polls show the former vice presidential nominee has retained a strong core of support as she flirts with entering the presidential race — and makes millions from books and television.
“She desperately wants to remain a national figure, who can engage on issues, who can have a real impact,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, adding that Palin sees her role partly as someone who keeps party rivals honest.
Although she has not thrown her hat into the ring, Palin is third in the Republican nomination fight, according to polls compiled by Real Clear Politics, behind front-runner Mitt Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry, and narrowly ahead of Representative Michele Bachmann.
If she did enter, Palin would be the best-known Republican in the field, and one spared months of intra-party fighting, media scrutiny and expensive campaigning.
“Like every other Republican who potentially will run, she’s keeping her name out there, keeping her brand name but generally staying out of the debate, to avoid making any mistakes,” said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer.
“At a minimum, she keeps the Palin brand name going for other reasons,” he said.
The former Republican vice presidential nominee made a surprise stop at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines Friday — scheduled neatly between a debate between declared Republican contenders and Saturday’s Ames straw poll, an unofficial test of campaign strength.
“She’s still contemplating whether or not she’s going to run,” said Ford O’Connell, who was an advisor on the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008. “Her appearance in Iowa, which is the center of the political universe, shows that she is politically relevant.”
It was Palin’s second high-profile trip of the summer to Iowa, which will hold the first contest of the Republican race for the nomination to oppose Democratic President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election bid. She is also due to speak to a Tea Party movement rally in Iowa early next month.
“I think there is plenty of time to jump in the race,” Palin said at the fair Friday. “Watching the whole process over the last year certainly shows me that, yes, there is plenty of room for more people.”
September would probably be her decision deadline. “I don’t want to be perceived as stringing people along,” she said.
Since John McCain made her his surprise vice presidential selection in 2008, Palin has made millions. She has become a contributor on Fox News Channel, written best-selling books and starred in a reality television show.
Palin also enhanced her political influence during the 2010 midterm election season by campaigning for candidates in congressional and state elections backed by the Tea Party grass-roots conservative movement.
Fueling speculation about her plans, the former Alaska governor reportedly bought a house in Arizona where she could base a campaign and has traveled overseas to boost her foreign policy credentials. On Memorial Day, she roared into Washington on a motorcycle and then embarked on her “One Nation” bus tour to historic sites along the East Coast.
However, Palin has slipped in one area essential to any political candidate — the money race.
Palin’s primary fund-raising committee, SarahPAC, raised a paltry $1.6 million in the first half of 2011, far below the amount needed to fund a campaign staff and travel the country.
Romney, the Republican money leader, raised more than $18 million in the second quarter alone.
Palin’s appeal has also been usurped by Bachmann, a Tea Party movement leader who appeals to many of the same anti-Washington voters. Perry is also popular with Tea Party movement backers.
Palin’s Iowa visit was not the first time this summer that her travels have stolen the limelight from declared Republican candidates. In June, Palin’s went to New Hampshire on the day Romney launched his presidential campaign.
And she was in Iowa for the premiere of her documentary “The Undefeated” as Obama visited the state on June 28, the day after Bachmann announced there that she would run.
“She enjoys, in a way, big-timing the announced candidates. She enjoys going into markets where people are doing things and making them see that she’s a bigger political figure,” Mackowiak said.
Additional reporting by John Whitesides in Des Moines; Editing by Kristin Roberts and Vicki Allen