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Sarah Palin bus tour starts: No bus, but there are motorcycles

Sarah Palin’s much-publicized “One Nation” bus tour got off to a chaotic and rumbling start Sunday in Washington, with no bus in sight and the potential presidential candidate only occasionally popping into view.

The former Alaska governor, who has indicated she is still contemplating a run for the White House in 2012, showed up at a motorcycle rally for veterans in a Pentagon parking lot, clad in black leather, a black helmet and sunglasses. She arrived with her husband, Todd, and two of their three daughters in tow.

“We’re here to honor our vets,” Palin told NBC News.

Someone in the crowd asked whether she would run for president. “I don’t know yet,” Palin replied, according to Fox News. Amid the rumble of motorcycles, she was also asked whether all of her tour events would be so loud.

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“Oh, it would be a blast if they were this loud, if they smelled this good,” Palin said. “I love that smell of the emissions!”

Once the annual Rolling Thunder event began, Palin rode on the back of a Harley-Davidson driven by an employee of a local Harley dealership. They rode near the front of the pack of more than 100,000 motorcycles. Many riders were grizzled Vietnam veterans, their leathers festooned with patches professing love of country and hate for Jane Fonda, whose 1972 trip to Hanoi is still cause for bitterness.

Todd Palin rode close behind, with their youngest daughter, Piper, on his bike. The route took them across the Potomac and along the perimeter of the National Mall, ending near the Lincoln Memorial.

“I’m glad she got the experience,” said Rolling Thunder member Gus Caporale, a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran who owns an Italian bakery in Cumberland, Md. Palin “came and respected what we were all about.”

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Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was the keynote speaker; Palin did not take the stage.

Later in the day, she posted what appears to be the beginning of a travelogue on her website: “There’s no better way to see D.C. than on the back of a Harley! My family may be used to snow machines more so than motorcycles (though you couldn’t tell it with Todd driving a hog today with Piper on the back and with Bristol riding on the back of another bike). But whether you’re riding the open road or the frozen tundra, you’re celebrating a free spirit. What could be more American than that?”

The bus tour has been a staple of presidential campaigns, highly choreographed moments that present the candidate speaking to rapturous crowds — a sort of rolling campaign commercial. But Palin’s tour so far is as much a mystery as her political plans.

Her spokesman and campaign treasurer, Tim Crawford, told reporters to check her website for information about where the tour would go, but as of Sunday, the site only mentioned where she already had been. Reporters were left scrambling to try to figure out the rest of her itinerary.

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Last week, when she announced her tour on her SarahPac website — unveiling a custom-decorated coach adorned with images of the U.S. Constitution — she said her goal was the “fundamental restoration of America.” That set off a paroxysm of new speculation about her plans. In a short essay on the site, Palin said the tour would be a celebration of “historic sites, patriotic events and diverse cultures.”

“We’ll celebrate the meaning of our nation’s blueprints — our Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which are the threads that weave our past into the fabric necessary for the survival of American exceptionalism,” Palin wrote.

As she rode Sunday past the National Archives in the steamy Washington heat, she waved to supporters on the steps who had hoped she would stop to look at the country’s founding documents inside.

A person with knowledge of Palin’s plans said the bus tour was conceived not as a conventional speaking tour, but rather as a way for her to pay homage to touchstones of American history and to gain a physical presence in the early voting states. The bus tour will be divided into several legs, ending in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa.

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Later on this leg, Palin is expected to visit the Civil War battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg, where she may lay a wreath at the cemetery. She is also expected to visit Philadelphia — the Liberty Bell is a big graphic feature on the side of her bus — and wind up in New Hampshire toward the end of the week.

New Hampshire is generally considered favorable territory for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has a summer home there and is expected to announce his candidacy there Thursday.

Besides her bus tour announcement, Palin has also put forth other clues that suggest interest in either a presidential campaign or a renewed national presence after months in which voter sentiment toward her turned sharply negative.

A favorable biopic, “The Undefeated,” by Newport Beach filmmaker Steven Bannon, is in the final stages of post-production and is to be unveiled in Iowa, site of the first nominating contest of the presidential season, in June.

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Palin has also reportedly purchased an expensive home in Scottsdale, Ariz., leading to speculation that she will use the state — more convenient for travel in the lower 48 than her remote Alaska hometown of Wasilla — as a base for a potential campaign.

“I have fire in my belly,” she said recently on Fox News when Greta Van Susteren asked her about running for president.

Some doubt whether her organization is up to the grinding task of mounting a serious presidential bid, and the chaotic uncertainty surrounding her bus tour — the bus went unseen all day — suggested growing pains, at minimum.

She recently hired a chief of staff, longtime political operative Michael Glassner, and also rehired two former staffers, Jason Recher and Doug McMarlin, Bush White House veterans whom she met when she was the 2008 vice presidential nominee.

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Recher and McMarlin had left SarahPac in February amid speculation of a falling out. However, the pair, who helped manage Palin’s book tours, are experienced hands with events that have many moving parts — like bus tours.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.


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