From the moment John McCain made Sarah Palin his surprise choice for his running mate in the 2008 presidential election, it was clear the Alaska governor was a new Republican star.
Palin drew huge, enthusiastic crowds, but also became the target of ridicule on TV shows like "Saturday Night Live."
She had to bat down rumors about her family, listen to sniping about her wardrobe and who paid for it and face downright loathing from candidates and pundits alike.
Two years -- and many interviews later -- her star power, and the constant attacks from the left, endure. And that combination makes her decision whether to run for president in 2012 one of the most important milestones in a race that is just beginning.
"I still don't know," Palin told Fox News' Bret Baier about a possible bid. "You know, if there are others out there who are principled and hardworking and willing to make the sacrifices that you need to make as an individual, as a family, as a candidate, as an elected official, I'll keep doing what I'm doing and I'll be their biggest supporter.
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"But if, Bret, there's nobody else that, I think, is willing to make the tough decisions and isn't so caught up in, in the political machine that they believe that they have to compromise, then I'd be willing to make the sacrifices, and, um, run for office," she said.
If Palin does run, her critics underestimate her at their peril, says conservative author Angelo Codevilla.
“This is a very remarkable person,” Codevilla said. “Here is someone born with no advantages. … She's a wife and mother, does well as a member of the school board, becomes mayor of her town, runs for governor, beats the old boys and then is introduced to national politics where she is vilified like I don't think any other American politician has been vilified in this century, and continues to inspire millions.”
Those millions of Palin supporters include large swaths of the Tea Party movement who believe government has been hijacked by a ruling elite. Palin hears them.
“Americans are saying we can't keep doing business as usual in D.C. The voters expect a smaller, smarter federal government, more states' rights, more individual rights. Those are solutions that'll get the country on the right track,” she said.
Palin said she supports spending and hiring freezes.
"You tell your -- the bureaucracies, ‘No, you're not going to get an automatic increase in your government program just because it's a new fiscal year.’ Why is the assumption that government has to grow?
“We stop the dollars going out the door still under the stimulus package that haven't been spent yet. You know, we say, ‘No more to that.’ Look at the $3 trillion that Obamacare is ultimately going cost. We repeal that, we don't fund that, we start looking at, at real market-oriented, patient-centered reform for health care. We're talking trillion here, trillion there, it's going to start adding up,” she said.
For Palin, the most pressing foreign policy issue is Iran, and preventing it from getting a nuclear weapon.
“If we don't do the right things there, you know, we can only imagine what the consequences are.”
“She's actually in a good position to win the Republican nomination,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “She is not in a particularly good position to win the presidency in a general election. Sarah Palin is probably the most polarizing, and polarizing candidates rarely are elected president.”
If by polarizing, that means uncompromising, Palin agrees she’s not about to compromise her core values, which include smaller government, personal freedoms and free markets.
But gravitas is another issue, and one that Palin finds herself arguing about with fellow Fox News contributor Karl Rove, especially after she helped nominate unconventional Republican candidates in Senate races in Delaware and Nevada who ended up losing to very beatable Democrats.
For Rove, the question is whether Palin is a plausible president, and whether her new miniseries on TLC will help her get her elected.
In her defense, Palin says perhaps her path will mirror someone else who was once viewed as a long shot.
“I don't know how Ronald Reagan was ever seen in the Oval Office having come from a career in television, hmm,” she said. “Reagan was criticized for being an ideologue, for being too superficial, too idealistic, too optimistic and a bit too independent. I see perhaps a, a comparison in maybe some of our record, but nobody can be compared to Ronald Reagan.”
Another comparison for Palin watchers is the man she’d be looking to replace. Barack Obama was a relative unknown four years before he ran successfully for president. He also had less than two years experience in statewide office.
Palin does have executive experience as Alaska's governor. She quit before the end of her term, claiming the media obsession with her and her political opponents' efforts were hurting her and the state.
And while Obama was powerfully attractive as the first black presidential candidate, a Palin nomination would be historic as well -- the first woman chosen by a major party to run for the Oval Office.
The question is whether the chance to make history would offset swing voters' doubts about Palin.
Palin only promises that if she runs, expect the unexpected.
"I'll tell you what, my run would be unconventional. I've never had polls conducted before I jumped in, I've never had an exploratory committee tell me what I should or shouldn't do. If I believe in my gut that it's the right thing to do I'm going to jump out there and do it," she said.
Watch “Special Report With Bret Baier” through Friday for the series “12 in 2012” -- profiles of potential GOP contenders for the White House.