By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sarah Palin is back.
Seen for months as an unlikely U.S. presidential contender in 2012 and overshadowed by the jockeying among other Republican candidates, Palin ignited a storm of speculation about her political plans this week with just a few moves.
The former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee has authorized a feature-length film about herself that will premiere next month in Iowa, and reportedly bought a home in Arizona where she could base her campaign.
Palin, who took a trip overseas in March to bolster her foreign policy credentials, also told Fox News Channel last week she still had the ambition to make a run for the Republican nomination to challenge President Barack Obama.
"I do have the fire in my belly," Palin said. "I want to make sure America is put back on the right track and we will do that by defeating Obama in 2012."
Many Republicans had discounted the possibility of a Palin candidacy in recent months as she offered no public signs she was planning for a race.
But Palin's star power and political potential were evident in the blast of Internet and Twitter speculation ignited by a report on her film project on the Web site Real Clear Politics earlier this week.
The documentary approved by Palin looks at her political rise and tenure as Alaska governor in a way that could cast her formulative years, certain to come under more scrutiny in a presidential campaign, in the best possible light.
"If the film is well received, you may see her back in the game, but with Sarah Palin you never know," said Republican consultant Ford O'Connell, an aide on the John McCain-Palin campaign in 2008.
"She is definitely dotting the i's and crossing the t's in case the opportunity presents itself," he said.
The decision to premiere the film in Iowa, which holds the first nominating contest in the White House race, fueled speculation about Palin's intentions. But some in Iowa are still not convinced.
Ryan Rhodes, chairman of the Iowa Tea Party, said an outside group of Palin backers was trying to organize on her behalf but he had seen no official activity for her.
"There has been no indication she is coming to Iowa," Rhodes said. "I read the news stories and hear the speculation, but at some point you think somebody in Iowa would know she's coming, and that just hasn't been the case."
Palin's candidacy would shake up a slow-moving Republican race that has been notable so far for those who have declined to run -- including Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour and Donald Trump in the last few weeks.
A Gallup poll released on Thursday showed Palin a close second to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at 15 percent, up slightly from 10 percent a month ago as other potential contenders drop away.
Gallup said Romney and Palin's status at the top of the field owed mostly to their high name recognition. Many Republicans have been unhappy about the current crop of contenders, and Palin would immediately inject some star power into the field.
She is popular with conservatives and Tea Party activists, but is not a favorite of establishment Republicans who fear her low approval ratings with the broader electorate could doom the party in a general election against Obama.
Republicans said Palin's name recognition and proven fund raising ability gave her the ability to get in the race late.
The decision not to run by Huckabee, who won the Iowa contest in 2008 with strong support from social and religious conservatives who are fond of Palin, also could open a path for her there.
Rhodes said activists in Iowa, where the state's unique caucus rules make organization vital to success, would not wait too long for a decision by Palin. The crucial Iowa straw poll is scheduled for mid-August.
"It gets harder and harder to start every day, by late July people will be pretty solidified," he said. "She's going to have a strong support base waiting for her if she gets in, but the question will be whether she can get beyond that."