Seen until now as amorphous and dull, the field of Republicans positioning themselves potentially to take on President Barack Obama in next year's presidential race was exhibiting some electricity yesterday thanks to a bus, some motorbikes and a certain former governor of Alaska.
While most polls still give front-runner status to the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who will formally launch his repeat bid for the White House in New Hampshire this Thursday, the eyes of grassroots Republicans and the media were last night on Sarah Palin as she pulled out of Washington DC in a colourfully painted bus for what was advertised as tour of historic sites in the eastern United States.
Ms Palin, who for months has been teasing everyone about her intentions regarding the 2012 race, kicked off the week-long tour with a chaotic appearance at a veterans' motorcycle rally on the Washington mall. It was an intrusion that was not especially welcomed by the organisers.
"She certainly is a major factor," Senator John McCain, who launched Ms Palin into the political stratosphere by choosing her as his running mate in 2008, told Fox News yesterday. But like everyone else, he could not say exactly what she was up to. "Whether she'll even run or not, I don't know," he said.
Even the bus tour retained a degree of mystery yesterday, with no word on its precise itinerary and nothing by way of details on the website that announced it. We do know it will end in New Hampshire and likely stops along the way include the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg and Antietam.
The website offers a brief audio message from Ms Palin, sounding like someone who wants to run. "We have a vision for our country and it is a vision anchored in time-tested truths," she begins, before offering the Tea Party bromide: "The Constitution provides the best road map for a more perfect union."
Her site also contains several postings from Ms Palin on her favourite topic – the wretchedness of the "lamestream media", as she calls the US press. "Goodness, cleaning up the sloppiness of reporters could be a full time job," one begins.
It is not just Ms Palin's manoeuvrings that has the Republican Party suddenly on alert, however. The Republican Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, on Friday suggested for the first time that he might consider running, despite previously insisting that he wouldn't. His entry, if it comes, would drastically alter the dynamics of the contest. He is deeply conservative and has never lost an election.
"I'm going to think about it," Governor Perry conceded. "I think about a lot of things."
Unsettling the picture further is news that Republican grandees in New Hampshire – which traditionally holds the first of the nomination primaries on the heels of the first caucus-style voting in Iowa – will be cheering Rudy Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York, at a fundraising event on Thursday.
Mr Giuliani, who will be the keynote speaker, may thus be thinking of pitching his hat into the ring. If he does so, he will presumably be blocking out memories of his campaign sputtering to nowhere in 2008.
Ms Palin's arrival amid the Harley-Davidson-riding veterans, all members of a charitable organisation called Rolling Thunder, caused the inevitable commotion as reporters and fans crowded to glimpse her. Dressed in black leather and on the back of a bike, she led a contingent heading out of a car park at the Pentagon. Later she set off on her bus to the National Archives to view the Constitution.
"I'm not very appreciative of the way she came in here," remarked Ted Shpak, Rolling Thunder's national legislative director. "If she wanted to come on the ride, she should have come in the back."
The Republican contenders
Tim Pawlenty The former governor of Minnesota was the first mainstream candidate to announce his intentions to run. He may attract support from independents and conservatives, but is seen by some as lacking the toughness to take on Barack Obama.
Mitt Romney A familiar face from 2008, he leads a new Gallup poll of likely runners. Counting against him are his Mormonism and the Obama-like health bill he passed as Governor of Massachusetts. He is unpopular among some Tea Party activists. However he has a solid fund-raising operation that raised $10m in a single day last week.
Newt Gingrich After announcing earlier this month, he has stumbled by criticising his own party's budget proposal and failing to explain a $500,000 revolving line of credit he has had at Tiffany's. His woes in the first week of campaigning were compounded when a gay rights campaigner dumped glitter on him at a book signing.Reuse content