Sarah Palin and husband Todd greet fairgoers during a visit to the Iowa State… (Charlie Neibergall, AP )
Reporting from Des Moines — With her youthful wardrobe — platform sandals, polka-dotted toenails and skinny, low-cut jeans — Sarah Palin does not look like the buttoned-up, middle-aged Republican presidential contenders who've been traipsing around New Hampshire and Iowa for weeks. But here she is, just like them, sweeping into both states this weekend to give speeches on her way to, well, what?
If she is to run for president, she said last month, she will have to decide by the end of September.
Many Republicans with ample presidential campaign experience say her window is closing fast. Polls suggest that her indecisiveness may have turned off many Republican voters who might have been more open to her before Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann got in the race.
That could change, though, if Palin decides to run.
"She obviously has total name identification, and still has a net positive image with the Republican base, the people who vote in caucuses and primaries," said Charlie Black, a veteran Washington lobbyist who served as Sen. John McCain's chief advisor in the 2008 presidential campaign. "She has proven her ability to raise money. The necessary tools are there."
Last month at the Iowa State Fair, Palin said any campaign of hers would be "very grass-roots."
"Each campaign that I have ever run in these 20 years of elective office has been kind of unconventional. Right, Todd?" she said, looking at her husband, her closest advisor.
Many doubt she can impose a new template on an old tradition.
"At the end of the day, the rules usually prevail," said former New Hampshire Atty. Gen. Tom Rath, a Mitt Romney advisor. "I don't know any candidate that makes the race into the one they want. Once she gets in, she becomes like every other candidate."
That means slogging through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and spending as much time dialing for dollars as giving speeches.
Palin has been adept at raising small sums — in the first half of the year she raised nearly $1.7 million, spent close to $1.6 million and had $1.4 million on hand. But one veteran Republican strategist familiar with her operation guffawed at her fundraising skills.
"She is not capable of raising anywhere near the amount of money necessary for a serious presidential campaign," said the strategist, who like several others interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid damaging professional relationships. "Maybe a couple million. Not $50 million."
This strategist said Palin is "fundamentally a media candidate" whose product is not policy, but books, reality television and her million-dollar contract with Fox News. Keeping herself in the limelight, he said, is the key to "renewing that fan base and monetizing that stuff in the future."
Experienced operatives who have closely watched Palin's meteoric rise and sometimes wobbly performances on the public stage are mixed about how she would fare. Yet almost all said they thought she could be a force in the race, at least initially.
"I think she's still a star," said Sara Fagen, who was political director for President George W. Bush. "If you look at what's happened in this race so far, you've had a series of candidates show up on the stage relatively unknown outside their home states and catapult to the top, so that leads me to think there is room for somebody else."
Some think her "One Nation" bus tour, during which she refused to say where she was going but basked in the attention of reporters who were able to catch up with her, is instructive of how her style would have to change.
"You could get away with that for about a month," Fagen said. "But not over the long term."
Still, there is wide agreement that a Palin campaign would look like no other.
"I don't think she would burrow in in any one state," said a close advisor to a top-tier Republican candidate. "The one thing about Sarah Palin which is impressive is she does it her way. She doesn't follow orthodoxy. I think she is a much more gifted politician than people give her credit for."
Even so, from a purely logistical level, her task would be daunting.
"To build the kind of organization you need takes several months," Fagen said. "The infrastructure and lawyers alone amount to putting together a Fortune 500 company overnight. It's a massive undertaking."
One major obstacle, Fagen added: "A lot of the talent is already locked up."
In Iowa last month, Palin said she wouldn't hire people from "that political bubble that seemed to result in the same old ideas." But some on her small staff have deep establishment ties. Her chief of staff is Michael Glassner, a longtime advisor to former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, and her advance men, Jason Recher and Doug McMarlin, are Bush White House veterans.