"Conservatives are still looking for Mr. Right. And maybe Mr. Right turns out to be Ms. Right," said Bill Whalen, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution.
Palin "has built-in national stature and she's beloved by conservative talk radio," Whalen said. But "does she want to be a stay-at-home mom and a stay-at-home governor, or does she want to be a player on the national stage? She has to make a choice."
She has done little to discourage speculation - begun even as McCain's campaign faded - that she could return to the ballot four years from now.
In her hometown of Wasilla in the Anchorage suburbs, "Palin 2012" T-shirts are already for sale.
When she returned to Alaska on Wednesday night after losing the election, she was greeted at the Anchorage airport by chants of "2012! 2012!" Asked by reporters if she might run for president, Palin said, "We'll see what happens then."
Grover Norquist, a leading conservative and president of Americans for Tax Reform, called Palin "one of five or six people who is a plausible candidate for president in 2012," along with familiar names like Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"She's in the top tier, but she's not next in line." Norquist said. Running as vice president "puts you in contention."
Any number of other Republicans may step forward. Romney, the ex-Massachusetts governor who lost the nomination this year, has restarted his political action committee. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is heading to the leadoff caucus state of Iowa on Nov. 22 to deliver the keynote address to a conservative group.
For two intense months, Palin was the youthful foil to the old, sometimes cranky McCain. She was called everything from an empty skirt to the real deal. McCain, in defeat, called her "an impressive new voice in our party."
"She's somewhat of a diamond in the rough," said former Republican National Committee member Barbara Alby, who credits Palin with energizing the ticket. "I expect she'll grow from that."
But any path toward 2012 is filled with obstacles, some of Palin's own making.
Virtually unknown outside Alaska before her nomination, Palin revealed strong - even polarizing - views on religion, abortion and gay marriage.
She became a favorite among some social conservatives, but her cringe-worthy performances in TV interviews raised questions about her competence and provided fodder for late-night comedians. Her charisma attracted tens of thousands to Republican rallies, but voter surveys found her presence tilted a majority of independents and moderates to Barack Obama.
The governor who once won a Miss Congeniality prize was McCain's muscle, thrashing the media and her Democratic rivals in the conventional vice presidential role.
Her national political persona now bears little resemblance to her image as governor, when she was known for pushing a pipeline to carry natural gas from Alaska's North Slope, a bipartisan streak and taming the state's Republican establishment.
Some see her as a possible candidate for the Senate, should a vacancy occur, which would give her a new platform for her ambitions. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was clinging to a narrow lead in a re-election bid after being convicted of lying on Senate financial disclosure forms. Palin and others have called for him to step aside, even if he wins.
But Palin has rebuilding to do in Alaska. Voter surveys there show she remains popular, but Democrats are now more likely to view her negatively. On Wednesday, she said she hoped to show President-elect Obama how Alaska could be a leader in energy policy.
"Everybody in Alaska is seeing her in a new light," said Jonathan Anderson, an Alaska Assembly member and a professor at the University of Alaska Southeast.
"We knew she'd been the basketball player and beauty pageant contestant - and not too much more beyond that," said Anderson, a political independent. "She's back down with the human beings now, instead of being the star. Those things are going to follow her."
Mike Cannon, 41, who works on tugboats and fishing vessels, remains a Palin fan but was surprised by her emphasis on conservative social values during the campaign. "I don't agree with a lot of that stuff," he said in downtown Anchorage, nursing a cup of coffee.
The campaign, Cannon added, "revealed more and more of her limitations."
If she wants to lead the party, she'll need to find a way to stay visible in the lower 48 states - sooner rather than later.
"There continues to be a great deal of interest in her," said New Hampshire GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen, but "interest has a shelf life."