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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - These are Sarah Palin's people. Just ask them.

At the mere mention of her name, "tea party" activists light up and whip out "Saracudda" buttons -- a play off her "Sara Barracuda" nickname from her high school basketball team in Alaska.

With a dash of familiarity, many say they didn't vote for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2008 -- they voted for "Sarah." Quite a few see her as the right person to carry their limited-government, low-tax, freedom-fighting mantle -- if only she wanted it.

"She is the one," says Loren Nelson of Seattle. "And she's gonna do it."


The 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee isn't saying whether she'll run for president in 2012.

In fact, Republican observers say she's seemingly done more lately to establish herself as a political celebrity focused on publicity rather than a political candidate focused on policy.

If she does launch a White House bid, she has a natural constituency with this anti-establishment grass-roots network that's motivated by anger over the growth of government, budget-busting spending and President Barack Obama's policies.

In her latest media blitz since her "Going Rogue" book release last fall and the publicity tour that went with it, Palin was booked to give the keynote address Saturday night for the inaugural national "tea party" convention -- a gathering of 600 activists from across the country.

Her fee is $100,000 for the appearance at the for-profit event. That sum has led to criticism from even some activists that it runs counter to the coalition's image and could preclude people from attending.

Palin struck back at critics in a column in USA Today, saying she weighed whether to participate.

"My decision came down to this: It's important to keep faith with people who put a little bit of their faith in you. Everyone attending this event is a soldier in the cause," she wrote. "I made a commitment to them to be there, and I am going to honor it."

Without elaborating, she says she won't benefit financially from speaking at the convention and any compensation from the appearance "will go right back to the cause."

"The soul of the Tea Party is the people who belong to it," Palin says. "They have the courage to stand up and speak out ... They believe in the same principles that guided my work in public service."

She called the "tea party" mentality an organic effort, a ground-up call to action. Because of that, she said, "the process may not always be pretty or perfect, but the message is loud and clear: We want a government worthy of the fine Americans that it serves."

The former Alaska governor also planned to tape an interview Saturday to air on "Fox News Sunday," the network where's been employed as a contributing analyst since January. Then it was off to Texas on Sunday to campaign for GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who is facing a bitter primary challenge from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Next month, she will speak at a rally in Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid's hometown of Searchlight, Nev., to kick off the Tea Party Express III tour. In April, she heads to Boston for "tea party" gathering there around the one-year anniversary of the coalition that began last spring.