Last night in living rooms across America, the 2012 race for the White House may have got under way with the lapping of water against a skiff and the grunt of a grizzly. Millions had settled on their couches to watch Sarah Palin's Alaska, an eight-episode reality show about the former governor and her family.
If plenty in the Republican leadership in Washington are praying privately that Ms Palin, the 2008 running mate with John McCain, does not compete for the party's presidential nomination in 2012, the signs continue to accumulate that she will and, moreover, that she would be well placed to win it.
A Gallup poll out at the weekend showed no fewer than 80 per cent of registered Republicans voicing positive views of her. If the first-in-the-nation caucus in Iowa were to be held today there doesn't seem much doubt that she would swat away the likely competition faster than the midges in the Juneau dusk.
Conceived by the British reality television producer Mark Burnett, the Palin series is mostly a saccharin sequence of family outings – episode one features a salmon fishing expedition and a close encounter with a bear and its cubs – that seeks to put a gorgeous sheen on Alaska and of course on the governor's clan.
The bear encounter prompts a somewhat unusual gloss on her small-government philosophy. "I love watching these mama bears," she says, watching the group. "They've got a nature, yeah, that humankind could learn from. She's trying to show her cubs, 'Nobody's gonna do it for ya. You get out there and do it yourself, guys.'"
Whether that political theory will translate into practice remains the big question. For her part, Ms Palin continues to tease her followers and the country about her intentions. Opinion remains divided, even among Republicans, whether she is merely making the most of her notoriety to make media hay while she can – she reportedly received $1m per episode for the TV show – or instead is painstakingly choreographing the opening stages of a presidential bid.
The Gallup poll offers a glimpse into why the Republican establishment is alarmed. While Ms Palin has a remarkable level of support from registered Republicans, including those who have embraced the Tea Party bandwagon, her standing with voters as a whole has weakened. Only 40 per cent of all voters said they viewed her favourably, her lowest score in over a year.
Nonetheless, signs which suggest her intention to stand continue to mount. She has released a video celebrating the Republican surge of the midterm elections two weeks ago and this weekend released a lengthy open letter to those Republicans who have been elected to the US Congress for the first time.
Next week, she launches her book, America by Heart, and starts a multi-state tour. It has hardly escaped the notice of commentators that among 17 different events across the country, two are in Iowa, that crucial first caucus state in the nomination process.
But for now, it is the TV series that is drawing most attention. While Republican fundraiser Karl Rove, has publicly questioned whether Ms Palin can expect to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate while being a TV reality star, others see a clever strategy that is harnessing all possible media outlets to her political needs.
"It's really a season-long campaign commercial for her," noted Scott Conroy, one of the authors of the book Sarah From Alaska, which follows her on the 2008 campaign trail. "Not only is it free, she is getting paid to do it."Reuse content