"At some point in time, if she's a serious candidate, she has to do what other candidates do, and that's engage people one on one," said veteran Iowa GOP activist Steve Scheffler. "You may be a rock star, but if you don't have the mechanics, it's difficult."
Huckabee, an ordained minister who ran an intense grass-roots campaign in Iowa before falling to eventual GOP nominee John McCain, agreed.
"People in Iowa and New Hampshire are not star-struck because somebody is running for president," he said. "They will ask the hard questions and they will put people through the wringer."
It's possible, however, that Palin's high visibility — boosted by frequent appearances on Fox News and her new TV show on the TLC network, "Sarah Palin's Alaska" — will let her play by different rules. No other potential GOP candidate can touch off a media frenzy with a brief comment on Facebook or Twitter, as she can. Palin's golden touch extended to her daughter Bristol, whom voters repeatedly brought back for more "Dancing with the Stars" despite her limited talent.
Before the TV hit's final show, in which she finished third, Bristol Palin said winning the contest "would be like a big middle finger to all the people out there that hate my mom and hate me."
Sarah Palin's record certainly has its dents. Some Republicans partly blame her for painful Senate losses in Nevada and Delaware, where she endorsed tea party upstarts who won the GOP nomination but lost to vulnerable Democrats. Closer to home, she was embarrassed when her Alaska GOP rival, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, won re-election with a write-in campaign after a Palin-backed challenger had won the party nomination.
Many are still bewildered by Palin's abrupt decision in July 2009 to step down as Alaska's governor. If she didn't want to finish one term as governor of a sparsely populated state, they ask, how badly can she want to be president, and how well could she serve?
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine recently told the Kennebec Journal: "I think she likes being a celebrity commentator for Fox, and a speaker, and being able to provide for her family. It's a lot easier to charge people up than to actually govern."
Former first lady Barbara Bush said Palin seems happy in Alaska and "I hope she'll stay there."
In Iowa, some doubt that Palin can skate by on her fame while Romney, Huckabee and others go door-to-door, day after day.
"Is she going to try to organize on star power, which is problematic?" asked Ed Failor Jr., head of Iowans for Tax Relief. "She really could be a very good candidate," he said, "but there are a lot of decisions she needs to make about how to proceed with the caucus process."
Palin keeps only a few advisers close to her, led by her husband, Todd. She told the New York Times Magazine that if she runs for president, "the organization would have to change."
Bob Vander Plaats, who heads The Family Leader, an Iowa umbrella group of evangelical Christian organizations, said Palin appeals to many but must do some ground work.
"There's a big difference between coming to Iowa and signing a book and coming to Iowa and saying you want to be commander in chief and leader of the free world," he said. He said the last celebrity candidate in Iowa was former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who fizzled badly.
"It didn't play well when he came with his rope lines and his motorcades," Vander Plaats said. "People wanted to sit at the kitchen table with him."
Terry Holt, a Washington-based Republican campaign strategist, said Palin "is a force to be reckoned with." She's doing some things that a candidate needs to do, he said, and "all the things that kingmakers need to do."
Following a midterm election in which voters embraced non-mainstream Republicans in many states, Holt said, "it would be a mistake to sell her short."