Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin covers her heart during the national anthem… (Craig Ruttle / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — When officials at Lubbock Christian School were pondering who should headline their annual benefit dinner for the 350-student institution in northwest Texas, someone suggested inviting Sarah Palin.
"We all laughed and said, 'That's impossible,' " recalled Peter Dahlstrom, the school's superintendent. "She would be too busy or it would be too expensive."
He was shocked when the answer came back from Palin's camp: yes. With the assistance of some local families, the school paid the former Alaska governor a fee he was not allowed to disclose, and she spent the evening of Jan. 24 speaking before a sold-out crowd of 1,400 at the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center.
"It was something pretty unique for a country guy like me," said Dahlstrom, who weeks later was still puzzling over the school's luck.
But Lubbock offered exactly the kind of audience the onetime Republican vice presidential nominee and prospective 2012 presidential candidate has sought out.
During the last six months, Palin has almost exclusively addressed pro-gun groups, small Christian schools and antiabortion advocates, an examination of her engagements shows. Rarely has she accepted offers from groups outside her socially conservative constituency -- though she made an exception Thursday when she spoke to an influential Long Island business group.
Palin's appearances may not be broadening her appeal beyond her devoted fans, but they have been a lucrative venture for the former Alaska governor; her packed schedule suggests the riches she would give up were she to jump into the race for president. Aside from income from speeches, she is earning $1 million as a contributor for Fox News, under terms of a deal that goes through 2012 -- unless she becomes a candidate.
The Washington Speakers Bureau, which handles Palin's speaking engagements, did not respond to questions about her fees, which reportedly go as high as $100,000 a speech. The Times previously reported that she was paid $75,000 plus travel expenses for a speech at Cal State Stanislaus in June. (She sometimes waives her fee, as she did this month for a speech at a Ronald Reagan centennial celebration in Santa Barbara.)
The former governor has done at least 17 speaking engagements unrelated to her recent book tour or political campaigning since late August, according to a schedule compiled through news reports and interviews. Fourteen have been before conservative or Christian organizations.
"I think we would be part of what many people would call her base," said Phil Waldrep, an evangelical preacher who organizes a Christian women's conference called Women of Joy, which is set to feature Palin for the third time on April 15 in Oklahoma City. Her previous speeches drew more than 4,000 women in San Antonio and 13,000 in Louisville.
"People are very intrigued with what she has to say," Waldrep said.
While Palin often takes jabs at the Obama administration in her addresses, she usually highlights her family and faith.
"God opens doors, but he will not push us through. You have to take that step," Palin told a crowd of 2,500 on Oct. 7 in Montgomery, Ala., at an event that raised $1 million for scholarships to Faulkner University, a private Christian university.
Palin did not respond to a query about how she decides which groups to address. But booking her is not easy. When Dean Whiteway, the chancellor of Plumstead Christian School, first told the Washington Speakers Bureau he wanted Palin to come speak, the response was: "Get in line," he told the Allentown Morning Call.
After pooling money from parents of students and alumni, the private school in Pennsylvania's Bucks County scored a November appearance by Palin, who brought sugar cookies as a dig at what she said were government efforts to ban sweets from school parties. She then headlined a $750-per-plate school fundraiser at the Cock 'n Bull restaurant.
Palin is particularly popular among antiabortion groups, which applaud her decision not to abort her son, Trig, after learning he had Down syndrome, and her daughter Bristol's decision to give birth after she became pregnant at 17.
"It was just beautiful," Martha Schieber, a spokeswoman for the Vitae Foundation, said of Palin's speech at the group's September fundraiser in Kansas City, Mo. "She spoke a true pro-life message to a pro-life gathering, and it gave a lot of people inspiration."
In the last year, Palin has done four fundraisers for Heroic Media, an antiabortion group that also enjoys the backing of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, another possible 2012 contender. The Austin-based nonprofit runs television and print ads featuring a toll-free number that directs women to pregnancy centers that do not offer abortions.
"We asked her to speak because of her stance on life issues and because she has lived the issue," said Heroic Media spokeswoman Kimberly Guidry Speirs.