The former Alaska governor regularly gets nationwide attention with her selective use of Facebook and Twitter, choosing provocative words when others testing the presidential waters prefer a lighter touch.
Some political pros say her tactics, which protect her from mainstream reporters and neutral audiences, are savvy and effective. Others say she will have to change if she hopes to win the crucial Iowa caucus or New Hampshire primary, let alone the 2012 general election. Many agree she's a master at exploiting the campaign possibilities of fast-changing social media.
Palin was bound to be drawn into the national debate that followed Saturday's shooting rampage in Arizona, which killed six people and gravely wounded Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Last March, Giffords noted in a TV interview that Palin's political committee had targeted her district, among others, with crosshairs. "There are consequences to that action," Giffords warned.
There is no evidence that the shooting suspect, Jared Loughner, knew of Palin's actions. But Giffords' remarks seemed eerily prophetic, and her husband and friends complained bitterly of the criticism Republicans had heaped on her in the fall campaign.
Palin issued a brief statement of condolences Saturday, when some news reports erroneously said Giffords was dead. She rebuffed countless media requests for further comment.
On Monday, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck read an e-mail from Palin saying, "Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence."
On Wednesday, Palin posted a video on her Facebook page in which she defended her actions and rebuked the news media and her critics.
"Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding," she said, "journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn."
The term "blood libel" raised eyebrows. While the phrase "has become part of the English parlance to refer to someone being falsely accused," said Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, it is "fraught with pain in Jewish history."
The term is associated with centuries-old claims that Jews killed Christian children for rituals. Some Jewish lawmakers felt Palin's comments were especially ill-advised because Giffords is Jewish.
While bloggers speculated on whether Palin knew the term's history, political pros marveled at her continued ability to dive into national debates when, where and how she chooses.
"Nobody understands her base better than she does," said Democratic consultant Erik Smith. He said Palin has established "a communications mechanism that gets around the mainstream media."
Republican strategist and commentator John Feehery said Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee, "is now the dominant media presence on the Republican/tea party front. She can make news quicker and more effectively than any other conservative Republican."
If she decides to run for president, Feehery said, "you would have to make her the favorite to win the nomination." He added, however, that he doubts she could beat President Barack Obama in November 2012.
That's a possibility that worries many Republicans. Polls, all conducted before the Tucson shootings, show Palin to be the most divisive of the potential GOP candidates. Many Americans are solidly for or against her, and relatively few are undecided. "Will Palin run?" is almost a parlor game in political circles. Wednesday's video did little to settle it. Some politicians questioned why a presidential hopeful would take chances with phrases like "blood libel" at a time when many elected officials are trying to lower the rhetorical temperature.
At the White House, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs stayed out of the debate over Palin's choice of words. "There are plenty of people that can render opinions on that," he told reporters. "I'm not going to do that."
The White House reticence to engage came a day after Obama eulogized the victims of the attack and called for more civility in political rhetoric, appealing to Americans to communicate "in a way that, that heals, not in a way that wounds."
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, another possible Republican presidential candidate, told The New York Times that it's wrong to blame politicians for the Tucson tragedy. As for the use of crosshairs to target House districts, which Palin's video suggested is commonplace, Pawlenty said, "It's not a device I would have chosen."
Some saw Palin's video as a sign she's eager to challenge Obama. She twice referred to America as "exceptional." That's a favorite word of conservatives who say the president refuses to acknowledge the nation's well-earned prominence.
Some Republicans doubt that Palin and her small group of confidants spend a lot of time in deep, strategic thinking. She seems to follow her instincts, they say, which have helped propel her to remarkable amounts of fame and wealth -- starting, of course, when Republican presidential nominee John McCain made her his running mate in 2008.
Many Democrats think Palin is much better at making money and gossipy headlines than in assembling the kind of political operation that can carry her to the White House.
"Every time she pops off, she excites her narrowing band of partisans and probably makes herself more money, but she further alienates everyone else," said Democratic consultant Jim Jordan, a veteran of presidential campaigns.
Historically, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire insist on questioning presidential hopefuls in small and frequent gatherings. That tradition might force Palin to emerge from her cocoon. New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie told New York Times editors Wednesday that Palin will "never be president" if she continually avoids unscripted and possibly adversarial exchanges with reporters and the public.
Some campaign veterans, however, think Palin may be able to use rapidly expanding social media outlets to reach and inspire primary voters in novel ways.
"She's a very savvy practitioner of new media," said Smith, the Democratic consultant. A candidate probably cannot win the Iowa and New Hampshire Republican contests entirely with Facebook, Twitter and similar outlets, he said, "but you can do an awful lot."