Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin greets the crowd after her interview with… (Charles Dharapak, AP Photo )
Reporting from Des Moines — When Sarah Palin swept into the cavernous Agriculture Building to see the Iowa State Fair's famous butter cow sculpture, a buzz went through the crowd.
From the moment the former Alaska governor was spotted earlier Friday at the Cow Barn, ogling livestock, she was the center of a well-behaved mob of fans and journalists, many of whom were ignoring the declared Republican presidential candidates who spoke at half-hour intervals on the fair's soapbox stage.
Palin's touch with the crowd was reminiscent of her 66 days as a vice presidential candidate in 2008. As she made her way around the fairgrounds, she hugged a special-education teacher, posed for cellphone photos, and chatted with farmers about their crops and 4-H kids about their cows.
"I think there needs to be more kids out there like that, working really hard and learning what it takes to run a business and be productive," Palin told a teenage boy. "Keep up the good work."
It was just like a campaign visit. Except it wasn't.
In a few days dominated by presidential campaign politics — including Thursday's debate among declared Republican candidates, Saturday's straw poll in Ames and Texas Gov. Rick Perry entering the race the same day — Palin inserted herself into the story simply by showing up, much as she did in New Hampshire the day Mitt Romney declared his candidacy there.
She did not plan to stick around for the straw poll. "I don't want to step on anyone's toes, so we won't be in the state tomorrow. We'll already be on the bus heading out," she said.
She refused to disclose her political plans. "I think it's early," she said. "I think it's too early."
Palin said she will decide soon, though, out of respect for her supporters: "I want to be fair to them and make sure they don't feel like they are just hanging on to something that is not going to happen."
She met with some of those supporters at lunchtime, in a roped-off VIP area in a corner of the fairgrounds.
Reporters pressed her about her support for a Perry run. Over Memorial Day, Palin had said she was a fan of the Texas governor. Like Palin, he appeals to social conservatives and Christian evangelicals. Palin campaigned for his reelection.
But Friday, she waffled.
"If at the end of the line, he's the one left standing, I would be extremely enthused about him because I'm a believer in ABO — anybody but Obama," Palin said. "But no, there's still a long time … to hear everybody's ideas, to more fully understand what their experience is before I would jump out at this early date and say I would support him over anybody else."
After lunch in the shade, Palin ventured out onto the hot, bright midway with her husband, Todd, daughter Piper and a niece. They were determined to eat something on a stick, she said: "The fried butter on the stick, fried cheesecake on a stick and fried chocolate ice cream on a stick."
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report from Des Moines.