Three years ago as well as two years ago, Sarah Palin’s schedule as governor in Alaska kept her from making an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering on the Right and the most significant convention for conservatives of the year.  Last year, rumors of disapproval over David Keene’s stewardship swirled around a third straight demurral, but on the record, Palin missed again over scheduling issues.  This year, her PAC plans to participate at CPAC, but Palin once again has already filled her schedule and won’t appear:

“February is our busiest winter month and with all the prior obligations and outside travel already scheduled for the month I had to forgo some of the opportunities in the Lower 48,” said Palin in an email to the Fix Thursday explaining her decision.

Palin’s statement, plus the fact that her political action committee issponsoring a reception at the event seems aimed at making clear that there’s no beef between her and the organizers. (Some conservatives, including Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) are skipping out over the inclusion of gay groups.)

But, is there more to the story? …

She can draw press wherever she goes. And, given the heightened controversy over gay and Muslim attendees, the exposure might seem too risky.

Jim Geraghty scoffs at the notion raised briefly that Palin was afraid to take a risk in appearing at CPAC:

Er… risky? She quits her term after two-and-a-half-years, endorses long-shot underdogs in GOP primaries, does a lot of her communications through Facebook and Twitter, did a reality travelogue series , had her daughter appear on a national realty competition series about dancing and issued a video commentary on the Tucson shootings right before a presidential address at a memorial service… and we’re to believe Palin going to CPAC would be risky? Heck, she deals with bigger risks when she goes fishing near bears.

Besides, as noted, Palin’s PAC is one of the participating groups at CPAC.  If Palin was boycotting the conference over issues with Keene or the other groups participating at the conference, then Palin would hardly set up shop at the conference, with or without her personal presence.  She may be choosing to skip the podium for other reasons, but disapproval doesn’t seem to be one of them.

Rachel Weiner at the Washington Post more correctly deduces that Palin doesn’t need the appearance to raise her profile, especially with conservatives attending this conference.  That suggests, though, that Palin isn’t terribly interested in stoking support for a presidential run.  This particular CPAC will be key for those considering a run in the Republican presidential primaries, as the next CPAC and the large gathering of conservative activists needed to do the necessary organizing won’t convene again until the middle of the primaries themselves.  Her former running mate, John McCain, made a huge strategic error in skipping the 2007 CPAC in favor of an appearance on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, and then had to return to a clearly diffident crowd in 2008 to beg for support.

McCain had a lot less credibility with conservatives in 2007 than does Palin, of course.   However, if Palin is seriously considering a presidential run, she would still need to do some retail politicking in person with the groups gathered at CPAC, and also to win the talent race for a presidential campaign.  That’s also true for Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, and everyone else mulling a run.  Skipping events, especially with large draws among the activist base, sends a signal that campaigning may not be a priority.

If Palin plans on an activist path for this cycle, however, getting her PAC into the mix would be more than enough exposure.  This decision, along with her lack of traditional organization in Iowa, makes it look as though she’s aiming at a kingmaker role in 2012 — which will be fascinating to watch, if so.  Whatever her strategy, it’s certainly not to play it safe.