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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sarah Palin's new television series showing her fishing for Alaskan salmon and scaling a glacier is the kind of free media exposure most politicians can only dream about.
Will her reality TV show translate into a Republican presidential campaign for Palin, the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee? Or will it expose her as a publicity hound lacking presidential gravitas?
These are questions circulating among Republicans as Palin remains coy about whether she'll seek her party's nomination to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012.
"Sarah Palin's Alaska" premiered Sunday on the TLC network less than two weeks after Republicans made big gains in November 2 congressional elections. Political analysts agreed the show can only help soften the image of the former Alaska governor who most Americans see as an uncompromising Tea Party conservative and deeply polarizing figure.
Palin, 46, has her work cut out for her. A Gallup Poll last week said 52 percent of Americans view Palin unfavorably, the highest percentage holding a negative opinion of her since Senator John McCain picked her as his vice presidential running mate in 2008.
The first TV episode showed Palin in her element: fishing with her family as brown bears cavorted nearby, struggling to climb a glacier in Denali National Park, preparing for a Fox News appearance from her lakeside home and complaining about an investigative journalist writing a book about her next door.
"This is none of his flippin' business," she says of author Joe McGuinness.
Politicians usually have to spend millions for this kind of exposure. Adweek estimated Palin could receive up to $2.25 million in free media exposure per episode, or $18 million.
"In other words, if Palin were to make a run for the White House in 2012, TLC will have gifted the world's most famous 'hockey mom' with an unprecedented tide of soft-focus campaign support," Adweek reported.
TLC said the show was watched by nearly 5 million people -- a large number for a small cable channel -- and was the biggest program launch in terms of audience in TLC history.
The eight-part TV series is coupled with a 16-stop tour to promote Palin's second book, "America by Heart." The tour includes two stops in Iowa and one in South Carolina, two important states in the Republican nominating process.
"She's certainly soaking up a great deal of attention, and I think she is at this very early stage of the nominating process sort of sucking up a lot of air from her potential competitors," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri
While other potential Republican candidates like Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty do the hard slog of lining up donors and courting voters, Palin is sailing above it all, using her job as a commentator on the Fox News network to opine and making a fortune from paid speeches. Gallup said her favorability rating among Republicans is 80 percent.
And Palin seems to like The Question.
"I wouldn't do it just to shake it up," she told a crowd in Pennsylvania recently. "I'd be in it to win it."
Like many Republicans, strategist Rich Galen said he doubts Palin will run but the uncertainty works for her.
"It keeps her in the conversation. It keeps the speech money coming, keeps the appearance money coming," Galen said. "It enhances everything else she does." (Additional reporting by Jill Sergeant in Los Angeles; Editing by Doina Chiacu)