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Sarah Palin, tea party candidate in 2012?

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) appears to be making a purposeful play in recent days to be the face of the "tea party" movement, a strategy that suggests what sort of candidacy she would run if she enters the 2012 presidential contest.

Palin has largely demurred when asked about her 2012 ambitions (or lack thereof) -- choosing to steer the conversation to the importance of electing Republicans this fall.

But, in a speech to the Iowa Republican Party on Friday night and then again in a Web video released by her political action committee today, she seems to be sending clear hints about a national bid -- and laying claim to the mantle of the tea party candidate if she does run.

In the video -- titled "Tea Party" -- Palin praises the movement as a "ground-up call to action that is forcing both parties to change the way they are doing business," adding, "It is so inspiring to see real people, not politicos, not inside-the-Beltway professionals, come out and stand up and speak out for commonsense conservative principles."

Palin sounded similar themes in her speech to the Iowa Republican party's Ronald Reagan dinner on Friday night -- repeatedly praising the candidacy of tea party insurgent Christine O'Donnell (R) in Delaware and castigating many of the GOP poobahs, most notably former Bush White House senior adviser Karl Rove.

Of Rove's skepticism about O'Donnell's chances of winning a U.S. Senate seat this fall, Palin said, "And Karl Rove and the other leaders who will see the light and realize that these are just the normal hard-working patriotic Americans who are saying no, enough is enough."

The confluence of her speech and the Web video send a very clear signal: If Palin runs for president it will be a bid rooted not in the Republican Party but in the tea party movement.

(While Palin has made that plan more explicit in recent days, it shouldn't be surprising to anyone who has followed her political career. She campagined -- and won -- by running against the Alaska political establishment when she was elected governor in 2006. Even as the party's vice presidential nominee in 2008, she seemed far more loyal to grass-roots conservatives than to the GOP as a whole.)

In years past, Palin's strategy would almost certainly be dismissed. After all, the presidential primary process is heavily dependent on organization and expertise -- the two qualities that the party establishment has in spades.

But, the successes of tea party candidates such as O'Donnell, Alaska attorney Joe Miller, Kentucky ophthalmologist Rand Paul and former Nevada state assemblywoman Sharron Angle in Senate primaries this year suggests that the model may be changing.

None of those candidates benefited from establishment support, and, in nearly every case, they were drastically outspent by their primary rivals. But, each won thanks to grass-roots energy fueled by the national tea party movement.

Now, it's worth noting that the tea party pushing a candidate to a primary victory in small population states like Alaska and Delaware is not the equivalent -- or even close -- to winning a Republican presidential primary fight.

But, with Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- three small states -- slated to once again play a prominent role on the early end of the 2012 nominating fight, there's no reason to entirely dismiss the lessons the 2010 primaries have taught us.

Does all of the above mean Palin will run for president? No.

She is among the most unpredictable politicians ever to gain the national stage -- who would have predicted her resignation as governor of Alaska? -- and almost certainly hasn't made up her mind about a run for the nation's top office.

But, her speech and subsequent video make very clear that Palin wants to keep the door wide open to the possibility and make sure that those who consider themselves Tea Party stalwarts know that she is of and for them if she does decide to run.

(It's worth noting that Palin's move to align herself fully with the Tea Party movement comes amid increasing speculation that South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, another favorite of the group, might consider a run for president.)

In fact, the closing sentence of Palin's new Tea Party video could easily be fit into a 2012 presidential bid built on a Tea party foundation. "This party that we call the tea party is the future of politics," Palin says.

Stay tuned.

By Chris Cillizza  | September 21, 2010; 1:22 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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