Sarah Palin’s magical mystery bus tour this week demonstrates that she can do what no other Republican can do: capture front-page headlines at will; fuel the fire of her media career, super-charge the Palin Money Machine, and sustain unexpectedly high national name recognition.

Just when many critics had all but dismissed Sarah Palin’s political future, saying her negatives are too high, and her ability to address important issues lacking, she has used something as simple as a bus tour to confound them.

“The Bus Stops Here!” – here at sacred historic sites – but also here at the door of each Republican presidential aspirant, the door of the Republican Party, and the door to winning the presidency in 2012.

This bus tour speaks to the socially and religiously conservative heartbeat of Middle America. Sarah Palin understands what Ronald Reagan understood. To defeat Jimmy Carter, who said Americans were in a state of malaise, Reagan optimistically appealed to the potent political power of Middle America embodied in his slogan, “It’s morning in America.”

And that’s the note that Sarah Palin strikes at each stop on her tour. Like no other candidate she knows the heartbeat of Middle America. They are on the whole patriotic and religious folks who appreciate what Sarah Palin represents. They like to see someone who represents their values making the headlines and forcing the hand of the media moguls and political power brokers.

Each stop on her tour appeals to these conservatives. At the National Archives, she underscored her belief in the Constitution’s primary role in American politics and the need to restore its preeminence, and at Gettysburg she identified with the American military and demonstrated her interest and knowledge of American history.

Her bus tour has thrown a monkey wrench into the plans of Republican presidential aspirants, who must take her star-power prowess into consideration and adjust their campaigns accordingly, and demonstrated that the Republican Party needs her more than she needs it, because of her large and loyal national following and fund-raising machine, which Republicans must have to win the presidency.

The issue is not whether Sarah Palin will run for the Republican presidential nomination, but rather whether any Republican candidate and the Republican Party can command the support of Middle America. The candidate who emerges as the Republican nominee must have the support of Sarah Palin’s large and loyal following to win the Presidency.

The issue is also not whether the bus tour will lower her negative ratings. Regardless, the tour energizes and expands her political base and continues to make her the dominant voice in the Tea Party movement.

Should she choose not to run, every candidate for the Republican presidential nomination will seek her support, and the media will seek her analysis of the candidates and issues.

Should she choose to run, she will bring an excitement to the Republican Party, which it sorely needs. And if she can craft a message as Ronald Reagan did with “It’s morning in America,” she will inspire hope and optimism among Americans, who are now in a Jimmy Carter state of malaise.

So, Sarah Palin is in the driver’s seat. Republicans need her more than she needs them. She IS the elephant in the room.

Dr. Charles Dunn is Distinguished Professor of Government, Regent University and author, "The Seven Laws of Presidential Leadership" (Prentice-Hall, 2007).