When officials at Lubbock Christian School were pondering who should headline their annual benefit dinner for the 350-student institution in northwest Texas, someone suggested inviting Sarah Palin.
"We all laughed and said, 'That's impossible,'" recalled Peter Dahlstrom, the school's superintendent. "She would be too busy or it would be too expensive." He was shocked when the answer came back from Palin's camp: Yes.
But it offered exactly the kind of audience the onetime Republican vice presidential nominee and prospective 2012 presidential candidate has sought out. Her appearances before mostly pro-gun groups, small Christian schools and abortion foes may not be broadening her appeal beyond her devoted fans, but they have been a lucrative venture; her packed schedule suggests the riches she would give up were she to jump into the race for president. Aside from income from speeches, she is earning $1 million as a contributor for Fox News, under terms of a deal that goes through 2012 -- unless she becomes a candidate.
The Washington Speakers Bureau, which handles Palin's speaking engagements, did not respond to questions about her fee, which reportedly goes as high as $100,000 a speech.
Palin has done at least 17 speaking engagements unrelated to her recent book tour or political campaigning since late August. Fourteen have been before conservative or Christian organizations.
"I think we would be part of what many people would call her base," said Phil Waldrep, an evangelical preacher who organizes a Christian women's conference called Women of Joy, which is set to feature Palin for the third time on April 15 in Oklahoma City. Her previous speeches drew more than 4,000 women in San Antonio, Texas, and 13,000 in Louisville, Ky.
While Palin often takes jabs at the Obama administration in her addresses, she usually highlights her family and faith. "God opens doors, but he will not push us through," Palin told a crowd of 2,500 in Montgomery, Ala., on Oct. 7 at an event that raised $1 million for scholarships to Faulkner University, a Christian university.
Palin did not respond to a query about how she decides which groups to address. But booking her is not easy. When Dean Whiteway, the chancellor of Plumstead Christian School, first told the Washington Speakers Bureau he wanted to Palin to come speak, the response was: "Get in line," he told the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call.
After pooling money from parents of students and alumni, the school scored a November appearance by Palin. She then headlined a $750-per-plate school fundraiser at an area restaurant.
Palin is particularly popular among groups opposed to abortion, which applaud her decision not to abort her son, Trig, after learning he had Down syndrome, and her daughter Bristol's decision to give birth after she became pregnant at age 17.
"It was just beautiful," said Martha Schieber, a spokeswoman for the Vitae Foundation, said of Palin's speech at the group's September fundraiser in Kansas City, Mo.
In the last year, Palin has done four fundraisers for Heroic Media, a group against abortion that also enjoys the backing of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, another possible 2012 contender. The Texas-based nonprofit runs ads featuring a toll-free number that directs women to pregnancy centers that do not offer abortions.
While Palin is earning a good living on the lecture circuit, her speeches also mean big money for the groups that land her.
The Long Island Association, which invited Palin to headline its annual meeting on Thursday, demanded top dollar from those wishing to sponsor the luncheon. For $50,000, the official event sponsor was promised two seats on the dais, four tables at the event and access for four executives to "a private VIP Champagne Reception" with Palin. Other packages ranged from $5,000 to $40,000.
Dahlstrom said Lubbock Christian School used the proceeds from Palin's speech -- the amount of which he would not disclose -- to pay off debts and establish an emergency fund. "It far and away blew away any successful fundraiser we've ever had," he said. "Now we're faced with the challenge: What do we do next year? Because there's no one else around who will draw like her."