By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sarah Palin is going rogue again, confounding the press and delighting fans on a family bus tour that could be a prelude to an unconventional White House campaign -- or a branding exercise for Palin Inc.
The 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee has kept reporters scrambling across three states for three days, refusing to publish her schedule while traveling the countryside in a flashy, painted campaign-style bus.
After announcing the tour of East Coast historic sites last week, Team Palin went silent on the itinerary and refused to accommodate press coverage. It was an unusual strategy for any politician, particularly one considering a White House run in 2012.
It was hardly surprising for Palin, however, who denounces the "lamestream media" and built her political image around her unconventional style. And it paid immediate dividends with coverage from reporters who chased her like paparazzi after Angelina Jolie.
"This is a very well-orchestrated media hype that has created buzz well beyond the standard bus tour," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.
"A standard bus tour gets standard coverage, but now she's getting standard coverage plus more. It's a huge branding exercise for Palin and her business model," he said.
Palin's routine visits to the National Archives in Washington, George Washington's Mount Vernon home in Virginia, Baltimore's Fort McHenry and the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania were news on a quiet Memorial Day holiday weekend.
Her first event on Sunday, riding in the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally in Washington on the back of a Harley, drew a frenzy of cable news attention and a crush of photographers and fans.
In a brief chat with reporters who cornered her outside her Gettysburg hotel on Monday, Palin said she was "kind of contemplating" a White House run that "would definitely be unconventional and nontraditional," the New York Times reported.
Palin's bus tour and next month's Iowa premiere of a documentary film about her stint as Alaska governor has generated a flurry of speculation about her presidential ambitions. Iowa will hold caucuses that will be the first formal step in selecting the 2012 presidential nominees.
ANOTHER DONALD TRUMP?
"She may not be sure which way she wants to go yet. If she gets a good response and her numbers go up in polls she might take the campaign part more seriously," said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University.
"Right now, she looks like Donald Trump," he said, a reference to the publicity-loving real estate mogul who earned a burst of attention earlier this year when he floated the idea of running for president.
If Palin ran for the Republican nomination and the right to challenge President Barack Obama, she would be the most well-known candidate in a field that has so far failed to impress many in the party. Her star power could be enough to help her catch up even after a late start.
But some Republicans still doubt her intentions given her failure to build contacts with local officials and activists in key primary states or do any of the other traditional early work of a presidential campaign.
A White House bid would force her to give up her contract as a news contributor with Fox News cable channel and postpone potentially lucrative business ventures for the joys of spending the winter on the campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"If you want to run for president, you have to follow a certain blueprint even if you are unconventional, and she's showing no sign of that yet," Bonjean said. "For now she seems more interested in keeping the Palin name out there."
Palin's fans have no problems with her approach. While her poll numbers have dropped with the electorate at large, she is still popular with many conservatives in the Republican Party and Tea Party movement.
"I'm thinking maybe she just wants to meet regular people who want to come out, and not to have some big speech," said Julie Monzi of Gettysburg, who was waiting outside Palin's hotel to see her.
"This way it's more intimate and more the people who really want to see her," Monzi said of the bus tour. "She's wanting to see America, wanting to see our history, and this makes it more personal."
(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Paul Simao)