Sept. 17, 2010 -- Fresh off two big triumphs in Delaware and New Hampshire, where her chosen candidates both won their primaries earlier this week, Sarah Palin will travel to Iowa today for one of the state's most important GOP political events of the year.
Palin, who has been an inspiration to Tea Party forces around the country, is heading to the Hawkeye State to speak at the Iowa Republican Party's Ronald Reagan dinner, a $100-a-plate fundraiser that is expected to draw more than 1,000 Iowa Republicans.
It is Palin's most significant foray into Iowa politics this year, but her appearance is unlikely to answer the question on everybody's mind: Will she or won't she run for president in 2012?
Still, Palin's visit helps shore up her standing with Republican voters in the all-important early primary state and it allows her to keep up with other potential 2012 contenders who already have started to spend more time there. It's what longtime Iowa political observer David Yepsen called a "deal-me-in visit."
"Even with her celebrity and name recognition, it's always good to be in Iowa sending a signal to the local activists that you're there and should be kept in mind," he said.
Yepsen, the former chief political correspondent for the Des Moines Register who now heads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, predicted that Palin's brand of politics -- as well as her star power -- would play well with voters in the state.
"Even Sarah Palin's adversaries have come to have a new respect for her," Yepsen said. "She's clearly having an effect on her party in this cycle."
Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn told a local Iowa newspaper that Palin's visit was a "coup" for the party, which is busy raising money during the home stretch of the midterm election season.
Danielle Plogmann, spokeswoman for the state party, said it would be "the largest and best-attended Reagan dinner in recent memory."
Palin's appearance, coming on the heels of victories by two U.S. Senate candidates she endorsed in Tuesday's primaries -- Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware -- is likely to fire up the Republican base in Iowa, where the party is poised to make some important gains in November.
Doug Gross, a key player in the Iowa Republican Party and the state's 2002 GOP gubernatorial nominee, called Palin's influence during the 2010 election cycle "remarkable."
"You've got to take her very seriously from a political standpoint," Gross said. "She gives voice to a lot of the feelings among mainstream Republicans better than almost anyone out there in there."
Gross, who helped spearhead Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in Iowa in 2008, said he expects Palin to focus her message to Iowans on getting out the vote in November rather than her presidential aspirations.
But Palin's very presence in the Hawkeye State is enough to fuel speculation about 2012, and she's not the only one who has spent time there lately.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is eyeing another White House run, stopped in Iowa this spring and will be back in late October to campaign for GOP candidates.
Two other possible 2012 contenders, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, have both made stops in Iowa within the last month. They were both at the Iowa State Fair in August along with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, whose name has also been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate.
Pawlenty, in particular, has been one of the most active visitors, traveling to Iowa at least five times in the last year with plans to return in October. The Minnesota governor reportedly even has sent a full-time aide to the early primary state to begin organizing his political operation there.
But in a recent survey of 399 likely Republican Iowa caucus-goers commissioned by the Iowa Republican website, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses as a presidential candidate, was the favorite potential 2012 hopeful. He was followed by Romney, Gingrich and Palin -- in that order.
Meanwhile, Iowa Democrats are using Palin's Friday visit to rally their own troops. As former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe put it at the annual steak fry hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in Indianola last weekend, Palin will be the "very best organizer and fundraiser the Democratic Party" has this election season.
Taking Plouffe's cue, the Iowa Democratic Party has been trying to organize supporters to pledge to volunteer a total of 945 hours for the party, one hour for each day Palin served as Alaska's governor.
Palin, of course, has been doing quite a bit of her own fundraising, raking in around $866,000 in the second quarter of this year for her political action committee, SarahPAC. She's also been hitting the airwaves as a commentator for Fox News, posting regular updates on her Facebook and Twitter pages, preparing to roll out a television documentary and a new book in the fall, and crisscrossing the country for speaking appearances.
"She's riding high right now," said Gross, who will be at Friday night's fundraiser in Des Moines to see Palin. "She's coming out here at a time when she's hot."