-- There were "Palin 2012" T-shirts for sale at the election-night rally in Wasilla, Sarah Palin's hometown, but the Alaska governor headed home Wednesday saying she wasn't ready to think of a national political future.
"Right now, I cannot even imagine running for national office in 2012," she said in Phoenix the morning after John McCain and his running mate saw their Republican presidential ticket lose. "2012 sounds so far off that I can't even, can't even imagine what I'd be doing then."
Plenty of other people are thinking about Palin's political future, however, and the debate about her will be part of the emerging struggle over the direction of the Republican Party after election losses and as it faces the end of the Bush presidency.
"It's a mixed bag for Palin. She was initially very popular but didn't wear as well as many had hoped," said Republican consultant Todd Harris. "If she is going to have a future beyond Alaska politics, she's going to need to buttress not only her image but her credentials."
Whether she helped or hurt the McCain ticket is an open question. In surveys of voters leaving polling places, 60% said Palin was not qualified to be president.
Her selection initially brought a surge in polls as voters were drawn to an attractive fresh face, and social conservatives found in her a reason to be excited about McCain's candidacy. But she became a polarizing figure as she stumbled in interviews, seemed unprepared to discuss some issues, was lampooned on Saturday Night Live and took on the role of campaign attack dog.
"If I cost John McCain even one vote, I am sorry about that, because John McCain, I believe, is the American hero," Palin told CNN in Arizona. She said, though, she doubted that her presence on the ticket "would trump an economic woeful time in this nation."
Four in 10 voters surveyed said Palin was a major factor in their voting choice, and those voters were nearly evenly divided between McCain and Barack Obama.
Palin denied she had been a difficult candidate, a "diva" who spent lavishly on clothes with political funds and a source of tension within the campaign. Newsweek reported Wednesday, without identifying its sources, that even more than the $150,000 previously reported was spent on clothing for Palin and her family.
"It is absolutely false that there's been any tension," she said. "There is absolutely no diva in me."
Republican consultant Ed Rollins said Palin has "an open-ended future." She could run for re-election in two years, or perhaps seek a Senate seat from Alaska, before deciding whether to run for president in 2012, he said.
"For a period of time, she'll be the most significant Republican in the country, with 100% name identification," Rollins said. "The only handicap she faces is Alaska is a long ways away from everywhere else."
Palin returns to a political scene at home altered by her candidacy.
"She is definitely smitten with the national spotlight," said Larry Persily, an ex-aide. "She loves it and she is ambitious. … But in Alaska she is going to have problems."
He said the state government has fiscal problems after recent declines in the price of oil, on which it depends for substantial revenue. Referring to her harsh rhetoric after working with Democrats in Alaska, "A lot of Alaskans were offended by the Palin they saw on the campaign trail. That's going to make it harder to govern."