Sarah Palin's decision to quit as Alaska's governor at the end of the month left political observers scratching their heads and wondering, is this the beginning of Palin's run for the White House or the end of her political career?
Palin shot into the national spotlight last year when John McCain chose her as his running mate on the Republican presidential ticket. And she shot to the top of the GOP's list of potential 2012 presidential contenders the day after the Republican ticket lost the November election.
After Friday's announcement, some aren't so sure about Palin's prospects.
"I am real surprised. It is real unconventional," William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, told FOX News. "It would make sense to finish the governorship and then run for president in 2012.
But Kristol didn't count Palin out for 2012, calling her "crazy like a fox."
"It's a huge gamble -- but some of her gambles have paid off in the past," he said. "If I had to bet right now, I would bet that we just heard the first opening statement in the 2012 presidential race."
Democrats immediately pounced on the news.
"Either Sarah Palin is leaving the people of Alaska high and dry to pursue her long shot national political ambitions or she simply can't handle the job," Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse said in a written statement. "Either way, her decision ... continues a pattern of bizarre behavior."
With little fanfare and even less advanced notice, Palin announced Friday at the start of a holiday weekend that she did not intend to run for re-election next year and will hand the reins over to the lieutenant governor effective July 26.
"Many just accept that lame duck status, and they hit the road. They draw a paycheck they kind of milk it," she said. "I'm not going to put Alaskans through that."
Some questioned the political wisdom of quitting in the middle of her first term as governor, but others were reluctant to bet against her popularity.
"I know that liberals attack the most prominent and most likely Republican nominee," said Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas. "The more loudly liberals attack a potential Republican nominee, the more I think they're likely to be successful."
Palin hasn't expressed an intention to run for any other public office, let alone president, though she has been mentioned as a contender, along with former candidate Mitt Romney and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. On Friday, she said she still wants to work toward political change and thinks she'd be more productive out of the governor's office, though she didn't elaborate on any plans.
Palin said the decision to resign had been in the works for a while, and she acknowledged the intensity of the media spotlight. She was the target of a bruising article this month in Vanity Fair magazine, which called her 2008 election performance disastrous, and a recent back-and-forth with late-night TV host David Letterman about jokes he cracked about her daughter.
"You are naive if you don't see a full-court press from national level hitting away right now," she said.
Still political insiders were taken aback by her announcement.
Lanny Davis, Democratic consultant and a former Clinton White House adviser, said he empathizes with Palin for the attacks she has endured, even though he disagrees with her political views.
"The problem that Sarah Palin has with her resignation is the credibility that she can do more as a nongovernor than as a governor. That simply makes no sense," he said. "I think her basic problem in politics is not her intellect. I think her problem is most Americans, including a lot of Republicans, do not believe she is qualified to be president."
Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Palin is political toast.
"If she wants to run for president, what she's done is hand a tremendous two-by-four to all of her opponents, Democrats and Republicans alike," he said.
He comparing her to Ross Perot, saying the third-party presidential candidate was widely viewed as erratic and unstable despite drawing support for his position on deficits.
"She has just confirmed that criticism," Sabato said. "Politically speaking, if your goal is to run for president, this is a very stupid move. The correct move was to finish the one gubernatorial term."
Sabato said he doesn't believe Republicans will nominate Palin in 2012 if she were to run.
"If they do nominate her, I think they're inviting not just defeat, but landslide defeat in 2012," he said.
FOX News' Molly Henneberg and FOXNews.com's Stephen Clark contributed to this report.