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Palin's next move: Pivot or profit?

By Kristi Keck, CNN
Sarah Palin has been in the spotlight since she first stepped on the national stage.
Sarah Palin has been in the spotlight since she first stepped on the national stage.
  • Sarah Palin's book tour provides an opportunity for her to present policy ideas
  • Three in 10 don't think she's qualified to be president, poll says
  • Palin is at a critical point because she can introduce herself on her own terms, strategist says
  • "The art of creating conflict" is proving lucrative for Palin, Ron Bonjean says

(CNN) -- Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin embarked on her nationwide book tour with confidence, determined to settle scores and explain her side following a bruising year in the spotlight.

She kicked off her media blitz with the same fierceness that marked her debut on the national stage, and while the approach is selling books, observers say it's not sowing the seeds for a presidential run.

Her first two interviews, with Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters, focused mostly on the "he-said, she-said" allegations from the campaign trail. It's up to Palin, GOP pollster David Winston said, to take charge of the discourse and transition into more policy-heavy discussions.

"If she spends all of her time talking about her infighting with [John McCain campaign manager] Steve Schmidt and that's all she talks about for the next couple of weeks, then she will miss a major opportunity," he said.

Palin has ground to gain if she has designs on 2012. Fewer than three in 10 Americans think she's qualified to be president, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll. That puts her behind potential Republican 2012 contenders Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney.

Palin, however, has something other politicians don't. Tom Rath, a Republican strategist who worked on Romney's presidential campaign, described it as a unique "celebrity" factor.

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"She is one of these people that comes along every so often that for some reason captures the attention -- if not the imagination -- of the American public," he said, adding that there is a big difference between being famous and getting elected.

Her unpredictable steps -- from resigning as governor to endorsing a third-party conservative in New York's special congressional election -- have helped her keep a steady presence in the headlines, despite the ebb and flow of the news cycle.

The former GOP vice presidential candidate has been coy about any presidential aspirations. She told Winfrey that 2012 is "not on my radar screen right now." And to Walters, when asked if she'd play a major role, she replied: "If people will have me, I will."

If Palin sets her sights on the White House, she has to reach out to independents and conservative Democrats by offering real policy solutions instead of just riding a wave of publicity, Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.

But, Bonjean said, Palin could pivot to being a potential primary candidate.

Americans would elect a ham sandwich for president if it would promise them jobs and a higher income.
--Ron Bonjean, GOP strategist

Palin is at a critical juncture, Rath said, because "good, bad or indifferent" most people know her from the 2008 campaign.

"If she's got an opportunity to introduce herself on her own terms ... this is a good way for her to do it," he said.

Palin's penchant for playing to the base has made her a lightning rod, and she's picked up friends and foes along the way. Bonjean said she has potential to win supporters if she puts forth the right message.

"I think that Americans would elect a ham sandwich for president if it would promise them jobs and a higher income. What I mean by that is people are looking for new ideas and they're looking for the change that hasn't happened yet," he said.

But so far, he said, "Sarah Palin isn't offering change. ... She is on a bus tour selling books."

To that end, her image is a boon. Her book, "Going Rogue" was a bestseller before it was even released. Between the book sales and speaking fees, the self-described "hockey mom" stands to make millions.

If that's her goal, Palin doesn't need to change a thing, Bonjean said.

"The art of creating conflict is getting her a lot of fame and fortune," Bonjean said. "She may be very content to stay on that path because it's generating a lot of income."