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Previewing Palin

From NBC's Domenico Montanaro
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Sarah Palin is expected to take the stage here tonight at 9, and speak for about 30 to 45 minutes. She will then take about 15 minutes of pre-screened, pre-selected questions.

Organizers say they aren't sure if Palin has seen the questions in advance.

Andrew Breitbart, who runs a conservative Web site, will introduce Palin. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessean, was originally scheduled to introduce her before she pulled out of the conference in response to the for-profit nature of the convention.

There are some questions as to whether Palin is or wants to be a leader of the Tea Party movement. In some respects, this seems a false question. People here don't consider Palin the leader, because they don't want the movement to have one. It started as grassroots, they want it to continue as grassroots, they said. There is a problem, however, that can present. When it comes to political organization, it becomes difficult for a grassroots movement to focus its efforts like a laser beam.

That said, most here acknowledge Palin is A leader of the movement. If the definition of a leader is someone people follow, clearly she's a leader of the tea party movement. This is her base.

There's also a question of whether or not the press covers her too much, because as we asked in First Thoughts on Friday – is she a politician or a political celebrity? She has great potential, and any politician would love to have such a fervent base. But she hasn't expanded her base at all since running as the Republican vice-presidential nominee with John McCain. The questions about her then were whether or not she could win over independents. Despite her financial success, whether she can win over independents is still a question. She hasn't moved the ball in the past year with them at all. Polls still show more independents have an unfavorable opinion of her than have a favorable one.

That's fine for being a millionaire, but it's not a likely winning national formula.

Palin doesn't feel she needs to take questions from the dreaded mainstream media. She still hasn't appeared on shows like Meet the Press to answer the serious questions and engage in a meaningful back and forth. Instead, she continues to preach to the choir. She has been named a Fox News contributor. And will be on Fox News Sunday tomorrow.

While that doesn't matter to her base of supporters, including many here, it does matter to many independents and others, who believe politicians should have to answer tough questions, that they should be intellectually tested and challenged. If they don't prove they can run the gauntlet, that may be interpreted by some voters as weakness.