Will Sarah Palin play in Peoria? Except for a brief stop in Chicago to tape an Oprah Winfrey show last November, Palin's first public appearance in Illinois will be April 17 in Washington, a town of about 14,000 near Peoria.
The local community center -- called Five Points Washington -- booked Palin for a speech and a dinner to raise money for a parking lot, youth scholarships and other projects. The 1,000 tickets sold out in a day. With VIP receptions thrown in, the center's gross -- according to my calculations -- should be about $235,000, minus Palin's fee, which is in the $100,000 ballpark.
Why Palin? "I think she has something to say," Washington Mayor Gary Manier says.
Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee who quit her job as Alaska governor, never made it to Illinois during the presidential campaign because President Obama had a lock on his adopted home state. It would have been a waste of time for the McCain-Palin ticket.
Now, she's out hawking her book Going Rogue, offering analysis on Fox News and making speeches, recently keynoting the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, where she opened with a cheery, "Happy Birthday, Ronald Reagan."
Manier says the Palin booking came out of a conversation he had with John Morris, an executive at Eureka College's Ronald Reagan Museum, a tribute to the school's most famous alum.
The speakers bureau representing Palin pitched the college for an event. Eureka took a pass but the board at Five Points -- whose vice chairman is Steve Brown, the spokesman for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois -- used the Eureka opening to land her.
There is a national fascination with Palin, whose flirtation with a 2012 presidential run has sparked stories about her competency. An ABC/Washington Post poll this month found 71 percent of those surveyed said she's unqualified for the White House. But the populist and popular Palin has other metrics that also count -- endless clicks from an insatiable Internet audience that responds to any headline with the word "Palin," TV ratings and book sales. All of that buttresses Palin's de facto leadership of a loosely organized national conservative movement.
Could Palin be a factor in the Illinois Senate and governor contests, with Illinois Republicans in strong starting positions for the November election?
She is as polarizing as she is popular. Last year, the winning Republican gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey never had her stump for them. Illinois Democrats last week continued to pound U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, the Republican Senate nominee, for soliciting Palin's backing last year. As Pete Giangreco, an adviser for Democratic Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias, put it, Kirk was the author of "a covert memo trying to beg for her endorsement."
But several Illinois Republican leaders said if Palin is agreeable -- and used in targeted areas -- she could be a help, especially in the governor's race, where either state Sen. Bill Brady or Sen. Kirk Dillard will face Gov. Quinn.
Pat Brady, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, says Palin "energizes people." State Sen. Dan Rutherford (R-Pontiac), the Republican nominee for state treasurer -- Washington is in his district -- says, "I think she does invigorate a certain constituency."
Palin probably wouldn't play well in Cook and DuPage counties, but, in central and southern Illinois, her stardom could get out the vote.
FOOTNOTE: In her Tea Party speech, Palin mocked Obama by asking "how's that hope-y, change-y stuff working out for ya?"
I asked White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett recently what she thought of Palin's dig.
Said Jarrett: "Making fun of the folks' real, sincere hopes for change that Americans across our country felt, I don't know that making fun of that is constructive. I prefer we would say, 'Come and think of constructive solutions that really improve our country.' I think people are tired of being made fun of."