05.29.11

Palin Trial Balloon

The former Alaska governor is using her bus tour to gauge interest in a presidential bid, says a knowledgeable source. Shushannah Walshe on the way to tell if she's in or out.

Sarah Palin’s “One Nation” Bus Tour launched Sunday, but is it an unofficial exploratory phase for a potential 2012 run or is it a Palin family vacation stopping in historic sites in the Northeast? The answer may well be both.

According to a source with knowledge of Palin’s operation and thinking, keep a careful eye on how long the tour lasts, because it is intended as a way to test the presidential waters. If the road trip ends abruptly, it’s a sign she didn’t get the enthusiastic responses she believes she needs to launch a campaign. If the tour heads to regions outside of the Northeast like Iowa and South Carolina that, the source says, is a “big indicator” that Palin will pull the trigger.

Palin started her bus tour Sunday—described on her website as a campaign to “promote the Fundamental Restoration of America”—not on her bus, but a motorcycle at the Rolling Thunder biker rally in Washington D.C. She was clad in black leather, sunglasses, and a Harley-Davidson helmet and was swarmed by both bikers and reporters in the Pentagon parking lot where the rally begins. She was joined by husband Todd and daughters Bristol and Piper. Todd drove with Piper while Bristol was on the back of another motorcycle and Palin was driven by a female Harley-Davidson employee from Ft. Washington, Maryland, according to Rolling Thunder organizers. Palin drove with the over 250,000 other bikers—who do the ride to bring awareness to veterans’ issues—from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall.

Nancy Regg, spokesperson for Rolling Thunder, said it was a “family day” for the Palins and although they were happy with how things turned out in the end, it was a chaotic start.

“We weren’t as prepared. We’re not used to dealing with politicians. It got a little crazy for a few minutes there,” Regg said. “It was tough for her to get back [on the bike] and turned around because she’s a celebrity basically and everyone wanted to see her and talk to her.”

The tour has been shrouded in mystery and the bus was nowhere to be seen in the nation’s capital despite reporters scrambling to locate it.

Palin did not speak at the stage set up on the National Mall nor was she announced, but did greet bikers and veterans by the staging area. She posted on the SarahPAC site after the rally, “there’s no better way to see D.C. than on the back of a Harley!”

“My family may be used to snowmachines more so than motorcycles (though you couldn’t tell it with Todd driving a hog today with Piper on the back and with Bristol riding on the back of another bike). But whether you’re riding the open road or the frozen tundra, you’re celebrating a free spirit. What could be more American than that?,” the post read.

Photographs of the “One Nation” tour bus on the SarahPAC site are wrapped with the first words from the Constitution, “We the People,” a map of the country, and an image of the Liberty Bell. Despite those clues, the tour has been shrouded in mystery and the bus was nowhere to be seen in the nation’s capital despite reporters scrambling to locate it and speculate where her next stop would be. After the rally, Palin was expected to make other stops at historic sites in the nation’s capital, but it does not seem as though those other stops were made.

A person with knowledge of the bus tour said Palin was expected to hit historic sites including the National Archives where the Constitution is held and Arlington National Cemetery, but a scheduling change seems to have been made. Next up, she was supposed to head to the Civil War battlefields of Antietam and Gettsyburg and then to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell. More stops expected are Ellis Island in New York City and then north to the first primary state of New Hampshire.

It wasn’t just reporters trying to ask Palin about her intentions for the tour, supporters also sat on the biker route hoping to get a glimpse of the woman they hope wades into the presidential waters. Scott Santaniello came from Norwalk, Connecticut, and sat outside the National Archives hoping to see Palin. He spotted Todd drive by, but not Sarah. He said he didn’t see a lot of other supporters waiting on the route for Palin, but his support is steadfast and he wants her to run.

“I really respect despite all the slings and arrows thrown from every side out there, she is trying to make a positive difference for our country,” Santaniello said. “I’d like to see her run for president. Her voice on that platform would add a lot to the national debate.”

When asked how he thought she would be received in his home state of Connecticut, he said he hoped they would be “friendly,” but “when people hear her name up in the Northeast (they say), ‘ugh.’”

The bikers at Rolling Thunder also seemed mostly supportive of Palin’s appearance because it brings publicity to veterans’ causes like soldiers missing in action. Patricia Thor is the vice president of a Rolling Thunder chapter in North Carolina and when asked about Palin she quipped, “I got to love a Republican!”

“Anyone with any celebrity status that can get us publicity and get the word out that there are Americans that have not been brought home, any awareness is appreciated,” Thor said, referring to soldiers missing in action.

Glenn Gabriel is with national Rolling Thunder and met Palin at the rally. He said he was pleased she was there, agreeing it brings publicity to their causes, but now expects Palin to help them.

“Now you came and you saw what we are about, what would you like to do for us if you are elected? Or whatever powers you have now, what can you do to help vets?” Gabriel asked.

When asked if he would vote for Palin for president, he responded that he doesn’t care about social issues and instead needs some questions answered, “What do you stand for? What are your causes? What did you take a stand for?” Gabriel asked—coincidentally using Palin’s successful 2006 gubernatorial campaign slogan.

Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.