By BECKY BOHRER and CHARLES BABINGTON
JUNEAU, Alaska - Sarah Palin will embark this weekend on a campaign-style bus tour along the East Coast, sending a jolt through the now-sleepy Republican presidential contest and thrusting a telegenic but divisive politician back into the nation's spotlight.
Palin's tour announcement is the strongest signal yet that she is considering a presidential bid, despite her failure to take traditional steps such as organizing a campaign team in early primary states. The former Alaska governor's approval ratings have fallen across the board - including among Republicans - in recent months. But many conservatives adore her, and she has enough name recognition and charisma to shake up a GOP contest that at this point seems to be focusing on three male former governors.
Beginning Sunday, Palin plans to meet with veterans and visit historic sites that her political action committee calls key to the country's formation, survival and growth. The tour follows reports that Palin has bought a house in Arizona and the disclosure that she's authorized a feature-length film about her career, which could serve as a campaign centerpiece. She recently said she has "that fire in the belly" for a presidential bid.
Palin said on the website for SarahPAC that the nation is at a "critical turning point," and that her bus tour will serve as a reminder of "who we are and what Americans stand for."
Many Republican Party insiders say that Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee, has engaged in too many political spats and soap-opera dramas to win the nomination and challenge President Barack Obama 18 months from now.
"I think that pathway is closed," said GOP pollster Wes Anderson, who is not working for any presidential candidate. Still, Anderson said, it's not surprising that Palin would look at the current field "and say, 'Why not me?"'
A Gallup poll of Republicans, taken before Palin announced the bus tour, showed former Massachusetts Mitt Romney favored by 17 percent. Palin followed closely at 15 percent. Ron Paul had 10 percent, Newt Gingrich 9 percent, Herman Cain 8 percent, Tim Pawlenty 6 percent, and Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman 5 percent each.
Party insiders argue that Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, and Huntsman, a former Utah governor, have the best chances to compete with Romney over the long haul. But a Palin candidacy could affect the contest in unpredictable ways.
In Iowa, Palin could appeal to thousands of religious conservatives who participate heavily in the nation's first presidential caucus. But she lacks, for now at least, the ground organization considered essential to getting supporters to the caucus meetings, held every four years on a winter night. Palin fans are laying the groundwork for such an organization on their own in hopes that she will run.
If she does, she might challenge orthodoxy by using her star power and fame, not ground troops, to compete in Iowa.
Palin appears regularly on Fox News. She has hosted a reality TV show, and her oldest daughter has a TV show of her own. Palin has written a best-selling book, and draws large crowds when she appears at book stores, rallies and other events.
Limited details of Palin's "One Nation" tour were released on the website of SarahPAC. The tour is to start in Washington and move up the East Coast into New England, perhaps even to the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire.
SarahPAC's treasurer didn't immediately return messages Thursday seeking details.
"It's imperative that we connect with our founders, our patriots, our challenges and victories to clearly see our way forward," Palin said on the website. "A good way to do this is to appreciate the significance of our nation's historic sites, patriotic events and diverse cultures, which we'll do in the coming weeks on our 'One Nation' tour."
Palin said the country doesn't need fundamental transformation but a "restoration of all that is good and strong and free in America."
As Sen. John McCain's running mate in 2008, Palin electrified the Republican nominating convention audience, and brought energy and vigor to a struggling campaign. But she stumbled in news interviews and sometimes seemed out of her depth on national and international issues.
Since then, Palin has often depicted herself as the victim of mean-spirited enemies, including some news organizations. Critics said she showed a lack of compassion and political savvy when she delivered a sharp-tongued commentary days after an Arizona congressman was gravely injured in a shooting.
Fox News said Thursday it was not changing Palin's status as a paid commentator, a sign that network officials do not consider a presidential run imminent.
Babington reported from Washington. Associated Press Television Writer David Bauder in New York contributed to this report.