It's presidential campaign season in the heartland, and on any given day, some semi-famous Republican is here to ask Iowans for a shot at the Big Job. Former governors and other onetime pols trip over each other as they vie for love and money. As expected, there is even an evangelical Christian mother of five lighting up crowds of religious conservatives. But her name is not Sarah Palin.
So where is the former Alaska governor?
Lots of places: India, Israel, New York, California, Oklahoma and, most recently, Wisconsin. But not Iowa, the state that could make or break her White House aspirations.
With no formal political operation here, Palin's fate right now is in the hands of a California lawyer and "tea party" supporter who has anointed himself her unofficial Iowa state director, and a retired potato chip salesman who is trying to coalesce support for her online. They know each other, but neither is officially connected to SarahPAC, her national political operation.
"If Gov. Palin runs, it doesn't hurt to have relationships and lists," said Peter Singleton, the 56-year-old Menlo Park lawyer who has been crisscrossing Iowa for months, meeting with Republicans in order to create a database for a 2012 Palin campaign, if there is one. "We're just a network of friends at this point."
The former chip salesman, Doug Adams, also 56, started the blog Iowans4Palin in February. "When she came on the scene, she was speaking directly to me," said Adams, a resident of Storm Lake, a small town about halfway between Fort Dodge and Sioux City.
Palin has said repeatedly that she has not made up her mind about 2012. In October, she said she would run "if there's nobody else to do it." In March, she told a Fox News host she was "tempted" to run. Earlier this month, she offered her troops a rallying cry when she spoke at a tea party event in Madison.
"The 2012 election begins here," she declared after a robust denunciation of President Obama. "Mr. President, game on!"
But she has yet to take any concrete steps to turn her flirtation into a campaign. At a time when Iowa operatives are being scooped up by other would-be candidates, none has been publicly attached to Palin. (And that other mother of five, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, is peeling off some of Palin's natural constituency.)
Political experts say Iowa is a do-or-die state for the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee. She may not have to win the Feb. 6 caucuses, the nation's first presidential nominating contest, but she has to compete.
"Iowa is really Palin's only real opportunity to win the nomination," said Republican consultant Mark McKinnon, who worked for Sen. John McCain in 2008 and helped prep Palin for her debate with then-Sen. Joe Biden.
"Iowa voters are ideologically and demographically her kind of voters," McKinnon said in an email. "But they are also very discerning. She would have to campaign very seriously and spend a lot of time on the ground to demonstrate her commitment. Not sure she has it in her."
Palin would be sacrificing more than most to run. She would have to give up her $1-million-a-year Fox News consultant contract. Her busy speaking schedule, which generates significant income, would be affected. If she were to run and lose, the brand she has built since 2008 would probably suffer.
"She will exercise more power, celebrity, influence and income if she stays on the sidelines," McKinnon said. "On the other hand she may not like Bachmann stealing her thunder and try and cut her off at the pass. And the pass is Iowa."
Some think Bachmann has already undermined Palin, whose national popularity has fallen in recent months. The Minnesota congresswoman, like Palin, has fans among the legions of evangelical voters in the state. She is also attractive to voters looking for someone with the kind of charisma that is lacking in most of the other candidates considering the race.
"She has some Palinesque qualities in terms of fire and enthusiasm," said Bob Haus, an Iowa political veteran. At a recent candidate forum in Des Moines, Haus said, "Bachmann made a tremendous impact. There's a substantial risk in Palin waiting."
Chuck Laudner, who helped run a campaign that ousted three Iowa Supreme Court justices in November after the court unanimously struck down a law banning gay marriage, said that despite Palin's personal popularity among Iowa conservatives, she would have to work hard in the state to succeed. Voters here, he said, expect to shake hands with candidates and make them squirm with tough questions.
"You can't snap your finger and say, 'I had a thousand people at my book signing; now I will have a thousand people at my first event,' " Laudner said.
Yet traditional Iowa rules and timelines may not apply to Palin. She already has enviable name recognition, fundraising muscle and a splashy new SarahPAC website. Millions hang on her every tweet and Facebook post.
But some Iowans will not be put off much longer.
"History would suggest that coming into the caucus process very late in the game would be a very risky strategy … because it's not a strategy that has ever proven successful," said Iowa GOP Chairman Matthew Strawn. "No question — allies or staff can do spade work. But at the end of the day, it's going to be a candidate that will commit to being here and look people in the eye and answer their questions."
Until that happens, Iowa's Palin for President operation pretty much consists of one guy with a computer in Storm Lake and another who is crisscrossing Iowa in a rental car, armed with a laptop and a sunny attitude.
Adams has plenty of time to run the Iowans4Palin website because he's home with a heart condition.
"This has been a lot of fun for me," he said. "It's really cool that we have all these volunteers that are getting together to get the ball rolling for Palin."
Singleton, a former software salesman who dabbled in investing, graduated from UC Hastings law school in 2008 and clerked for a conservative justice on the Nevada Supreme Court until last year. He became energized by the midterm election that saw Republicans take control of the House.
"I concluded that instead of finding a law job, I wanted to support the tea party movement and do some grass-roots organizing," he said.
Life on the road is cheap, he said. His only criterion for the inexpensive motels he favors: They must have Internet connections.
"Everything is kind of plugging along," said Singleton, who says he does not allow himself to be distracted by the roller coaster of speculation about whether Palin will get in the race or not. "I'm focused on the long game."