DES MOINES, Iowa-Sarah Palin's most recent foray to Iowa this month made her presidential aspirations about as clear as the mud her supporters tracked home, as many of the state's Christian conservatives make their 2012 caucus night plans without factoring in the former GOP vice presidential nominee.
But a McClatchy-Marist poll released Tuesday placed Palin within just five points of President Obama in a hypothetical matchup. Other recent national polls have GOP hopefuls Rick Perry and Mitt Romney about even with the president, who is battling slumping approval numbers, discontent with the economy, and fast-fading support from independents.
Likewise, polling among Republicans consistently shows a Palin candidacy would change the dynamic of a Perry-Romney showdown. A Sept. 12 CNN-ORC survey had Palin third nationally, ahead of other hopefuls Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman.
Speculation swirled earlier this month when Palin headlined a Tea Party rally in Indianola on Labor Day weekend. Organizers let expectations build for a crowd of up to 10,000, and the site of the event was moved to accommodate Palin's enthusiastic fans. Then the news cycle prior to the event got muddied with reports of Delaware's Christine O'Donnell being invited to share the spotlight, then disinvited. Finally, the late-summer sun gave way to an all-day downpour, and hopes for a massive crowd disappeared.
Right now, only Palin can say if the "Palin 2012" bumper stickers spotted after the rally on cars on Interstate 80 are worth keeping. But instead of building the Palin buzz, it's fair to say the campaign season rally ended up muting it in the Hawkeye State. Several of Iowa's conservative activists now say that they no longer expect the former Alaska governor to take the plunge.
"There's a crack in the window," said Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican. "It's closing rapidly."
Yet, Palin's Labor Day visit to the first-in-the-nation caucus state was her second such effort in about three weeks. In mid-August, she worked the Iowa State Fair just like the declared candidates. Until she makes her intentions known, pundits tend to interpret her remarks as jabs at Perry or Romney, while the GOP candidates still have to answer questions about her with a smile, saying there's always room for one more in the race.
Sen. Charles Grassley and Rep. Steve King, both Iowa Republicans, have openly said they assume she's not running, since she's not building a caucus-style organization.
"I'd be pretty close to saying I think it's too late," said Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. "I think people are almost tired of waiting."
Once considered a potential strong contender to follow the path of 2008 Iowa winner Mike Huckabee, Palin would have to surge without the traditional Iowa groundwork.
"I'll put it this way," said Steve Deace, a conservative talk radio host. "If Mike Huckabee announced today, he would still win the Iowa caucus."
That unsettled support in an Iowa race without Huckabee and with Romney largely inactive is precisely the opening that could yet tempt a candidate to come off the sidelines. For now, the conservative stalwarts that helped hype the Huckabee surge are biding their time and assuming the field is set.