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As Palin returns to NH, questions abound

Senior Political Reporter

September 04. 2011 1:00AM

Sarah Palin wears a New Hampshire sweatshirt during a June stop at a clambake in Seabrook. (REUTERS)

Summer unofficially ends Monday, and as the presidential campaign ramps up, 'The Sarah Watch' continues.

Sarah Palin returns to New Hampshire on Monday to speak to a Tea Party rally in Manchester with the same mystery surrounding her intentions as during her previous visit to the first-primary state in June.

But as fall approaches, the questions become more pressing.

Will she run for the GOP presidential nomination?

If she does, what effect will she have on the race?

If she does, will she campaign seriously in New Hampshire? If not, will that somehow lessen the importance of the leadoff primary?

At this point, Palin's drawn-out flirtation with a candidacy has turned excitement over 'The Sarah Factor' to 'Sarah Fatigue' in some quarters.

'You tend to get a sense now that the times have passed by her,' said UNH political science professor Dante Scala. 'People are looking elsewhere.'

Kevin Smith, executive director of Cornerstone Action, a conservative issues group, agreed.

'Some people have become so weary of her stringing the media along and stringing voters along as to whether she is or isn't going to run, that they're kind of over Sarah Palin at this point,' he said.

'Her coy game of, 'I'm not telling anyone whether I'm running but I'm going to visit the early primary states,' I think is turning people off, quite frankly,' said Smith.

But Michael Dennehy, a veteran strategist who advised John McCain's presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2000, said while Palin's intentions remain unclear, she is endorsing the primary just by showing up.

'She's a celebrity in the Republican Party, and her coming to New Hampshire continues to showcase the importance of our position in the nominating process,' he said. 'So I think it's wonderful to have her here to help promote the primary.'

Palin is scheduled to appear at Veterans Park at mid-day Monday in the second of three Tea Party Express rallies in the state.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will speak tonight at the group's rally in Concord. He will also be in Manchester on Monday for a pancake breakfast, but will leave for South Carolina before Palin arrives.

Jon Huntsman will be in the final day of a six-day campaign swing Monday with stops in Milford and Salem.

While Palin will draw the bulk of media attention, the former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China is not worried.

'She won't step on our parade,' Huntsman said. 'I don't anticipate anybody doing that.'

The size of the crowd Monday may provide some indication of whether Granite State voters are still interested in Palin, but she did not fare well in a July poll for WMUR-TV by the UNH Survey Center.

When likely Granite State Republican primary voters were asked which candidate they 'would not support under any circumstances,' Palin led with 23 percent. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich followed with 16 percent.

In that poll, Palin was supported by only 3 percent, compared with 35 percent for Romney and 12 percent for Michele Bachmann. Palin was viewed favorably by 41 percent and unfavorably by 52 percent.

All those numbers could change if the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate were to actually become a candidate, a decision she has said she will make by the end of September.

Some staunch conservative voters who believe Romney and Huntsman are too moderate are searching for an alternative. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was in the state Saturday, is the 'hot' candidate at the moment, especially now that U.S. Rep. Bachmann has made what Dennehy called a 'huge mistake' by downplaying New Hampshire and focusing on Iowa, South Carolina and Florida.

Cornerstone's Smith said Bachmann is 'leaving a possible group of people here for Sarah Palin to pick up' to mount a battle with Perry for the conservative mantle.

Such a fight, and the potential for splintered conservative loyalties, would be good news for Romney, said UNH polling director and associate political science professor Andrew Smith.

With Perry in the race, Romney is now trying to appeal to the Tea Party, but his strength is clearly among the more establishment, 'business conservatives.'

Scala agreed that Palin 'could put a stumbling block in front of Perry.'

Kevin Smith said that if conservative candidates decide to 'blow off' New Hampshire because they believe it is more moderate than the other early states, they misread the Granite State.

'History shows that New Hampshire tends to reward candidates who have more of a populist tone, regardless of ideology, and candidates who work their butts off here,' he said.

So, if Palin runs, will she campaign seriously in New Hampshire? If she stays away, does she have the power to render the primary irrelevant?

'I don't think she affects the primary one way or the other,' said Kevin Smith.

Dennehy said, 'We have no idea what kind of campaign she would run. The one thing we do know is that she has paid the most attention to Iowa and so one would have to think that would be her focus.'

Scala said, 'You could see her going the Bachmann route and concentrate on Iowa and other states and ignore New Hampshire. It seems like New Hampshire Republicans have said, 'Forget it.''

But Tom Rath, a former state Republican National Committeeman and a Romney supporter, said, 'As someone who has worked hard for the primary, I think what she does is neither good, bad, nor indifferent for it.'

Still, Rath saw no reason why Palin would not campaign in the state and 'do so in an absolutely retail manner, as she did when she ran for mayor and governor in Alaska.'

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