'Where's Sarah Palin?' CPAC Attendees Express Admiration, Skepticism of Potential GOP Nominee

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Thousands of the nation's most passionate conservatives have descended on Washington for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, including many potential 2012 GOP presidential nominees -- except former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Last week, Palin declined an invitation to address the conference citing a scheduling conflict, marking the fourth time in as many years that she skipped the annual conservative event.

But did conference-goers notice, and do they care?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is not really.

"Where's Sarah Palin? Probably on a reality show," said Brian Jencunas of New Jersey, shrugging his shoulders. "Instead, we got Sarah Palin lite -- Michele Bachmann. They've got the same hair, the same voice, the same issues."

Martha Stamp, a 74-year-old tea partier from Rhode Island, said Palin likely wasn't around because she had other priorities.

"Sarah is in Alaska. She was on TV last night," she said. "If she feels she can't come, if family obligations are keep her from coming here, God bless her."

"Sarah is in our hearts," opined Texan Nick Burt, 24, who was working the crowds in an Uncle Sam suit. "Sarah is probably on TV. I don't know, but I don't really care. She's just a media personality to me."

Interviews with dozens of activists from across the U.S. revealed widespread admiration for Palin, but also pervasive doubt over whether she has presidential potential.

"I love Sarah," said Carol Cannon, 60, of Virginia who was attending her first CPAC conference. "I think she's wonderful and a brilliant woman, but I can't see her as much as I would have a year ago or even six month ago being nominated for the presidency."

"Yes she's out in the media. But can she win, as opposed to just grab some headlines?" asked Tom Burch, president of the Vietnam Veterans Foundation. "I think it was a big mistake for her to miss this. And the other candidates who seem to be running for president are here. They know this is the time and place to be."

Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, and John Thune -- all considered likely presidential hopefuls -- were scheduled to appear at the three-day conference. Newt Gingrich spoke Thursday.

"I think that it's time for her to just kind of step back and let other people take the reins," said Kansan Lindsey Mock, 23, of Palin.

"I think she's doing a great job of promoting the Republican Party and the conservative movement where she's standing. But I certainly don't think it's time for her to run for president at this time," she said.

Palin Remains Popular

Palin came in third in last year's CPAC presidential straw poll, getting 7 percent of the vote, behind Ron Paul (31 percent) and Mitt Romney (22 percent). This year's results will be announced Friday.

The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll of likely Republican voters for 2012 put Palin in second, behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, with 19 percent support.

While Palin herself may be skipping CPAC this year, her political action committee -- SarahPAC -- is attending and sponsored a Diamond Reception Thursday night.

ABC News' Michael Falcone contributed to this report.

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