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Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin greets some of the thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts and military veterans participating in the Rolling Thunder rally on Sunday.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Thousands rode their bikes Sunday for the 24th annual Rolling Thunder event from the Pentagon to the National Mall, a Memorial Day weekend tradition in Washington, D.C. There was a new rider this year: potential presidential candidate Sarah Palin, astride a Harley.
Many in the crowd were excited to see her, but some worried that her presence could distract from the day's message. But there was no doubt, Palin draws a crowd — even in a crowd.
She rode up on the back of a motorcycle in a black leather jacket, black flared pants, black heels and a wide smile.
Along with her husband and family, Palin threaded her way through a whirling crush of reporters, star-struck bikers and a fierce set of bodyguard veterans who locked arms to keep people back.
Chris Rogers of Maryland said he was excited Palin was here.
"I love it. I think it's awesome," she said. "I think she fits right in."
Veteran Frank Wallace of Macon, Ga., rushed over to get a picture of Palin.
"I think it's good for her, basically," he said.
Wallace says he doesn't agree with Palin's politics, but called her presence a monumental event.
"I'm not basically a supporter of everything she does, but I still respect her for it," he said.
But not everyone felt that way.
"I think she should have stayed away," said Sharon Harbor of New Hampshire.
Harbor said she felt Palin's presence infringed on an emotional event meant to honor the troops — like Harbor's husband who died from Agent Orange and her son who is in Iraq.
"I think a lot of the things that Sarah does are for attention," Harbor said. "I don't think a lot of the things she does are heartfelt."
Rolling Thunder National President Gary Scheffmeyer says his organization isn't endorsing or supporting Palin, but he was glad she was here because it showed she supported veterans, prisoners of war and those missing in action.
"We're happy to have her — and it brings a good deal of attention to what we stand for," he said.
Palin herself smiled, shook hands and posed for pictures with fans. She didn't address any of the shouted about whether she would run for president. She did not address the crowd itself during Sunday's event, but asked directly why she was at the event, Palin told NPR she was "here to express our gratitude to our veterans.
"It is our vets who we owe our freedom — not the politician not the reporter — it is our vets so that's why we're here," she said.
But as many in the crowd noted, this wasn't a bad place to get publicity and solidify your support in a group that is clearly pro-American and very patriotic. Palin hasn't declared whether she will join the Republican field for president, but she started Sunday on what's being billed as the One Nation bus tour, which will visit historic sites through New England.
There's speculation that might include a visit to New Hampshire, the state that holds the first nominating primary. Some of her potential opponents, including Mitt Romney, are headed to that state this week. Romney and Palin lead the latest Gallup poll, but if Palin chooses to run she has the challenge of convincing skeptical voters including biker and veteran Steve Michael.
"I think that if the right person is Sarah Palin for the job, I'd vote for her," he said. "I'm not convinced necessarily that she is the right person, but I'm not convinced who is."
That kind of uncertainly about the field explains why a personality such as Palin sparks such excitement just by jumping on the back of a motorcycle.