DES MOINES (Reuters) - Sarah Palin fed speculation that she might run for president in 2012 on Friday with a high-profile visit to Iowa and a call for unity between battling factions of Republicans ahead of November 2 congressional elections.
"The time for unity is now," said Palin.
Palin spoke at the Iowa Republican Party's Ronald Reagan Dinner, her influence among "Tea Party" activists strong after conservative candidates she backed won in Delaware and New Hampshire Senate primary races on Tuesday.
The former Alaska governor, who was Republican Senator John McCain's vice presidential running mate in the 2008 campaign, was coy about whether she will join what could be a long list of challengers to Democratic President Barack Obama.
She told the crowd of about 1,500 that her husband, Todd, had suggested she not go for an exercise run outdoors in Des Moines because the headlines would be, "Palin in Iowa decides to run."
And she said she liked a comment from Iowa's Republican candidate for governor, Terry Branstad, that, "We need to stay focused on this election and not the next one."
Iowa and New Hampshire cast the first votes in presidential nominating campaigns and potential candidates routinely stop in each state in hopes of propelling themselves into the national spotlight.
The Republican lineup for 2012 will start forming late this year and in early 2011. As many as a dozen aspirants are possible and many of them have already rolled through Iowa.
But none have received the attention Palin has, with a large contingent of national political reporters and a phalanx of television cameras on hand for her appearance.
Palin used a sometimes rambling 30-minute speech to throw darts at many targets, including Obama, top congressional Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, pundits from the Republican establishment, and the "lamestream" news media.
She spent considerable time castigating "gutless" reporters who she said have reported untruths about her.
Palin said establishment Republicans who say some Tea Party-type candidates will not be able to win against Democratic opponents in the November 2 congressional elections need to get over it and help rally behind them.
"You lose some, you win some," she said.
Republicans expect big gains against Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate but some believe Tea Party-backed Christine O'Donnell's victory over a moderate Republican in Delaware probably cost the party a chance to take command of the Senate.
"Those internal power struggles need to be set aside," Palin said. "The need is great because the cause is so great."
Palin urged Republican leaders to spread out across the country to help rally voters, including Karl Rove, who has been harshly critical of O'Donnell. Rove was the architect of George W. Bush's two presidential victories.
"Karl," she said. "Karl, go to hear. You can come to Iowa, and Karl Rove and the leaders will see the light that these are normal, hard-working Americans.'
Palin's visit to Iowa was seen by many in the crowd of 1,500 as a first step toward a possible run.
"She's looking at something for the future," said Henry Reyhons, a Republican representative in the Iowa state legislature.
"I think she will," said DiAnn Rose of Mapleton, Iowa. "I hope she does."
Palin, admired by many conservatives, is not viewed favorably by a large segment of the American electorate, and the White House was quick to try to portray her as the best the Republican Party can muster.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called Palin "a formidable force in the Republican Party and may well be, in all honesty, the most formidable force in the Republican Party right now."
Does the White House interpret her trip as a first step in a run for the presidency?
"It is normally around this time of year that you go to dip your toe in the water (in Iowa). My guess is that she is going to dip that toe," said Gibbs.
While popular among conservatives, Palin still has a long way to go with other Americans. A CBS News poll on Thursday said 46 percent of American voters viewed Palin unfavorably, compared with 21 percent who have a favorable opinion of her and 33 percent who are undecided.
Palin promotes a traditional Republican low-tax, pro-business economic policy and aggressive foreign policy.