By Toni Clarke
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Sarah Palin urged Tea Party members on Monday to avoid infighting and focus on removing President Barack Obama from office.
The former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate, speaking at a Tea Party rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, also continued to tease supporters on whether she would join the Republican presidential competition.
"This is not the time to hunker down and preach to the choir," she said. "Now is the time to grow this movement."
Her comments followed a protest on Sunday by FreedomWorks, a force behind the Tea Party movement, aiming to prevent inclusion of Republican hopeful Mitt Romney at a rally held in Concord, New Hampshire, by the Tea Party Express.
FreedomWorks and some other Tea Party backers oppose the healthcare reform plan implemented by Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts. They saw his decision to speak to a Tea Party rally as a late-coming attempt to boost his standing with a movement he has until now held at arms length.
"We don't have time to be bogged down in internal conflicts," Palin said, adding that all candidates should be heard, including "those who are humble enough to admit they need you and have seen the light."
Dressed in crimson, Sarah faced an intermittent chorus of "Run, Sarah, Run," to which she said, simply, "I appreciate your encouragement."
Palin has said she will likely announce her plans before the end of September.
Rod Silverwood, a Palin activist who was handing out leaflets and collecting signatures at a booth at Palin's event on Monday, is working on the assumption she will run.
"We believe she'll pick a day to announce that has some meaning to the nation," he said. "We think September 17, Constitution Day, would be logical because her message has been about restoring America to the basic concept of what the constitution is about."
Despite Palin's vocal core of support, however, recent polls suggest other Tea Party favorites are gaining momentum.
A Gallup poll in August showed Texas Gov. Rick Perry overtaking Romney as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, with 29 percent of Republicans saying they are most likely to support Perry, and 17 percent likely for Romney.
If Palin does not enter the race herself, some expect her to throw her weight behind Perry, who won 35 percent of the vote among Tea Party supporters in the Gallup poll. Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann each received 14 percent.
Palin's appearance comes ahead of an important week for Republican contenders, who will kick off a series of debates with a roundtable in South Carolina on Monday afternoon that includes Romney, Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Herman Cain. Perry, who was slated to participate, canceled on Monday to return to Texas to deal with a wildfire emergency there.
(Reporting by Toni Clarke. Editing by Peter Bohan)
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