- With the ex-Alaska governor out of the race, candidates seek her blessing
- Palin has offered criticism of some fellow Republicans
- Her endorsement could help in primaries and general election, experts say
With Sarah Palin taking a pass on the 2012 presidential race, the focus has shifted to which Republican candidate will land the former Alaska governor's endorsement.
But there's no guarantee she will endorse anyone.
Palin has already lobbed pointed criticisms at the three Republican candidates leading the national polls: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, pizza baron Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
On the same day that Romney announced his presidential bid in June, Palin stole headlines by visiting his hometown of Boston and picking apart the Massachusetts health care reform law Romney enacted in 2006.
Last week, she called the newly ascendant Cain "the flavor of the week."
And a recent speech to Iowa tea party activists criticizing "crony capitalism" was, in part, directed at Perry, who has long been accused by political foes of doling out favors to campaign contributors.
"I do not think it's a foregone conclusion that she will endorse any candidate," said Stephen Bannon, the conservative filmmaker behind the pro-Palin documentary "The Undefeated." "She won't let the media set expectations for her or set a timetable for her or force her to do conventional things."
Bannon told CNN that Palin will think carefully before making an endorsement.
"If it does happen, it would be strategic, not something that would just be thrown out there," he said.
In 2010, Palin delivered crucial primary endorsements to Republican candidates around the country, making her a much-sought-after king and queen maker.
Of the 90 candidates she endorsed for House, Senate and gubernatorial seats during the midterm cycle, a majority went on to win in November.
But she stayed out of numerous other primaries despite pleas from GOP campaigns, according to Republicans familiar with the efforts.
Palin also has come to relish her role as political prognosticator, using her cable news platform and Facebook page to weigh in from the sidelines on the major issues of the day.
In the near term, Palin is not likely to remain quiet, even if it means throwing darts at the current crop of Republican candidates.
After her announcement Wednesday night that she was not running, Palin appeared on Fox News and urged Republicans not to lose sight of the ultimate goal, defeating President Barack Obama next year, even if the GOP field is flawed.
"There is no one perfect candidate, and I want people to keep that in mind and not be extremely disappointed in a politician," she said. "A politician is going to let you down. They're going to make decisions that you don't entirely agree with. And you can't just lose hope in what that politician's ideas reflect and represent."
Palin said the presidential contenders were already reaching out -- though she said her husband, Todd, was fielding most of the calls.
"I look forward to hearing from them," Palin said in the interview. "I look forward to working with them in order to maybe help them articulate their message even in more detail so that we can make that best decision of who our nominee should be to unseat Barack Obama."
Contacted by CNN, nearly every Republican presidential campaign said Palin's endorsement would be welcome.
Even the campaign of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who may be as ideologically and temperamentally distant from Palin as any candidate in the GOP race, said her support would be appreciated.
"If Governor Palin decides to support our campaign of serious, proven solutions to turn the economy around, of course we'd welcome it," said Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller.
Perry, who won Palin's endorsement during his 2010 gubernatorial primary against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, rushed out a statement in the minutes after Palin revealed her decision Wednesday.
"Sarah Palin is a good friend, a great American and a true patriot," Perry said. "I respect her decision and know she will continue to be a strong voice for conservative values and needed change in Washington."
Only Romney's campaign, which has been careful to chart a middle-of-the-road course as it looks ahead to the general election, offered a less than enthusiastic response when asked about Palin.
"We want everyone's endorsement," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Few question whether Palin's conservative stamp of approval would be an asset in the Republican contest, particularly in key early states such as Iowa and South Carolina.
When Palin showed up in South Carolina to endorse Nikki Haley during her 2010 gubernatorial primary, a Republican source working for a rival campaign calculated that the event generated "over a million dollars" in television and radio coverage.
"There was absolutely no way when that endorsement came down to break through the news cycle," said the Republican source. "It was an earned media blowtorch."
Palin registered in the mid- to low double digits in most national polls about the Republican race, and a Washington Post/ABC News poll this week indicated that two-thirds of Republican voters did not want her to run for president.
If she does endorse, it's not certain that Palin's devoted corps of supporters would automatically follow her to another candidate.
Her decision not to run touched off a round of soul-searching Thursday among Palin's most devoted backers online.
"She has proven her critics right and some of her supporters wrong," said one commenter on Conservatives4Palin, the online destination for Palin loyalists.
Said another: "I wish her and her family well but if she truly believes that she will have an impact now, she is deluding herself."
But Greg Mueller, a Washington-based conservative strategist who has worked closely with the Palins in recent months, said Palin ultimately will be hugely valuable to whichever candidate she supports.
A Palin endorsement "packs an incredible one-two punch" in both the primary and the general election, he said.
If Palin offers a full-throated endorsement in the Republican primary, she has the potential to rally "the conservative foot soldiers" -- social conservatives and tea party activists -- "who will go out and work hard and knock on doors."
And in a general election, Mueller argued, Palin can help the eventual Republican nominee shore up support on the right.
"This election, like all of them, is going to be about getting your vote out," he said. "If someone like Governor Romney were to win, he is going to need enthusiastic support from conservatives, and Governor Palin can help him with that if she were to get behind him."