- Associated Press - Monday, September 5, 2011

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin left open the possibility of a presidential bid Monday afternoon, while encouraging tea party activists to unite against President Obama. She also praised Republican presidential candidates for working harder to appeal to the tea party movement.

“Now we’re seeing more and more folks realize the strength of this grass-roots movement, and they’re wanting to be involved,” she told hundreds of activists at a Tea Party Express rally in the Granite State’s largest city. “I say, ‘Right on, better late than never,’ for some of these campaigns, especially.”

She didn’t name any names, but former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is among those courting tea party groups this weekend.

But Mrs. Palin’s New Hampshire appearance comes amid rising frustration — and indifference — among Granite State Republicans and tea party activists over her hazy intentions.

She has drawn headlines, dominated cable news coverage and raised supporters’ hopes through several recent visits to early voting states. And as she did Monday, she has consistently left open the possibility she would seek the presidency.

A New Hampshire tea party leader couldn’t hold back his frustration Sunday night at another rally hosted by the Tea Party Express.

“Once again, it is time to determine — are you here to sell books or are you here to run for president of the United States?” asked Corey Lewandowski, state director for Americans for Prosperity, a tea party ally. “The people of New Hampshire deserve to know, are you serious? And if you are serious, then welcome to the race. And if you’re not serious, get out of the way because we’re going to elect a new president.”

Aside from Monday’s visit — her second in New Hampshire in the past three months — local operatives say Mrs. Palin has not moved to hire staff or organize a ground game here in the state that will host the nation’s first presidential primary in roughly five months.

“At this late stage, there’s been so little infrastructure work for a potential candidacy, I think this is simply Sarah Palin wanting to be part of the process and to help shape the debate for the presidential campaign,” said Michael Dennehy, who led Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign four years ago but is uncommitted this year. “At some point immediately — meaning the next week or two — she’s going to hurt herself badly if she does not announce that she’s not going to run for president.”

The head of a prominent New Hampshire conservative think tank, also a tea party ally, said there is a growing sense of indifference among local conservatives.

“If she had done it right, she could be popular here,” said Kevin Smith, executive director of Cornerstone, “but I don’t feel a lot of energy or enthusiasm here about a Palin run. Voters here in this state, who frankly have been taking this primary seriously since the beginning of the year, are indifferent.”

That said, she drew hundreds of supporters to Monday afternoon’s rally, and she was interrupted once with chants of “Run, Sarah, run.”

“I appreciate your encouragement, I do,” she said, offering no more insight into her presidential ambitions.

The Republican presidential candidates, however, have much riding on a Palin candidacy, as she could dramatically change the dynamics of the race.

Operatives here think a Palin bid would eat into Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s support and therefore help Mr. Romney.

Speaking at another Manchester event Monday morning, Mr. Romney welcomed Mrs. Palin to the race.

“There’s always room for Gov. Palin,” he said.

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