The starting gun was finally set to go off, with Romney's announcement and next week's New Hampshire debate. But now, all eyes will be on Palin instead.
With the predictable timing of an attention-seeking child who throws a tantrum at a younger sibling's birthday party, Palin has chosen this moment to end a period of relative quiet and demand the national spotlight.
"Will she or won't she?" talk will now overshadow everything, perhaps well into the summer — even if she ultimately doesn't enter the race. And if Palin does jump in, it may be impossible for candidates like Pawlenty, let alone a Huntsman or Santorum, to get anybody to pay attention to them at all.
With those candidates overshadowed and obscured, Republicans who desperately want to avoid the controversial Palin leading their party are likely to rally around the one guy with the name, resources, and operation to beat her: Romney.
WILL SHE, WON'T SHE?
Romney quickly welcomed Palin's bus tour and possible candidacy — but so did Pawlenty, and others. No Republican wants to be seen as insulting or dismissive toward Palin, whose adoring followers they ultimately want to woo if she doesn't run.
And those other candidates seem to genuinely have no idea whether Palin is joining the race. "I don't know what she's doing," says David Carney, a senior advisor to Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire. "I don't think anybody outside her circle knows." Carney, like others, had nothing but positive things to say about Palin.
Outside those campaign circles, many are now convinced she's in. "I do think she will run," says Shushannah Walshe, reporter for the Daily Beast and co-author of Sarah from Alaska. "She's been constantly giving hints. I don't think she's 100-percent decided, but [her staff] is working on the belief that she is, and I believe that in the end she will."
Others are far more skeptical — MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell ridiculed anyone who falls for Palin's feint at a candidacy, and others have given similar warnings.
But even if she doesn't run, the fact that she's grabbing headlines for the coming weeks will make a difference.
For one thing, it puts front-and-center the right's single most effective Obama critic. Sure, most of America doesn't think Palin is a potential president, but they listen when she warns that ObamaCare will kill you, or that the president has betrayed Israel. She is a compelling, witty, engaging public speaker who pulls off mean-spiritedness with aplomb.
Second, she will draw attention to the Republican nomination contest, which has struggled for attention outside of core activist circles. That's good for the GOP — and it's especially good for Romney, if it means that more independent and moderate voters will vote in the primaries.
And finally, her great flaw — her lack of gravitas — plays precisely to Romney's strength.
There is little question that the White House doesn't want to face Romney in the general election; the Democratic Party pounds on him ceaselessly, while barely paying attention to the other Republican candidates. So, anyone who wants to see Obama coast to re-election might want to hold off on the cheers for Palin.
To read the Talking Politics blog, go to thePhoenix.com/talkingpolitics. Follow David S. Bernstein on Twitter @dbernstein.