HONG KONG - Months after abruptly resigning as Alaska's governor, Sarah Palin resurfaced in Hong Kong on Wednesday more moderate in tone and better versed in international affairs, possibly laying the first brick for a 2012 White House bid.
In her first overseas speech, the former vice presidential candidate touched on a wide range of issues - from financial markets and Afghanistan to China-U.S. relations and health care - before a room packed with more than a thousand investors and bankers at an annual investment conference.
"I'm going to call it like I see it, and I will share with you candidly a view right from Main Street, Main Street U.S.A.," Palin said, according to a video of part of the speech obtained by The Associated Press. "And how perhaps my view of Main Street ... how that affects you and your business."
While she displayed some of her trademark folksy charm, the fireworks from her debut speech at the Republican National Convention last year were apparently missing. So, too, was the sharp partisan edge of the politician who toured the country as Sen. John McCain's running mate. She appeared more moderate, did not attack President Obama directly and avoided any major gaffes, attendees said.
"She has learned and grown from the election," said Melvin Goode, New York-based consultant who said he'd carried out some political polling for President Barack Obama in the past. "She was more level headed. ... She didn't criticize. I was waiting to see if she said anything derogatory about Obama, and she didn't."
According to several accounts of her speech, which was closed to media, Palin argued for smaller government, calling for lower taxes and a private-sector solution to health care. She contended many average Americans were uncomfortable with health care reforms that infringe on private enterprise.
She criticized the U.S. Federal Reserve's massive intervention in the economy over the last year, according to one attendee, who declined to be named because he didn't want to be seen as speaking on behalf of his company. Praising the conservative economic policies of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she gave a general defense of capitalist systems.
"She was careful not to be over-critical ... but she said she saw the fiscal situation is going out of control," said Gregory Lesko, managing director of New York-based Deltec Asset Management.
It marked Palin's first major appearance since she abruptly resigned her post as governor in July, and the speech's location and international scope are seen as steps toward strengthening her credentials ahead of a possible bid for the presidency in 2012. While she's thought to be considering a run, her Hong Kong trip bore no political overtones, said Fred Malek, a friend and Palin adviser.
"You can read a lot of things into it, 'Is she trying to burnish her foreign policy credentials?' and the like. But really, it's a trip that will be beneficial to her knowledge base and will defray some legal and other bills that she has," Malek said.
Palin left office in part because of the toll of multiple ethics complaints filed against her.
Palin was criticized during the 2008 election for a lack of foreign policy credentials. She only received her first passport in 2007, to visit Alaska National Guard members serving in Kuwait and Germany.
Wednesday's speech marked her first trip to Asia, and she used the occasion to discuss China's relationship with the U.S.
Palin said she believes the U.S. has a role to play in helping China define its future, while emphasizing that Washington will always push for greater freedom there. She urged China to become a responsible member of the global community and help bring a resolution to pressing problems related to Afghanistan, North Korea and other trouble spots.
In an apparent reference to renewed tensions between minority Muslim Uighurs and members of China's Han majority that have led to violent riots, Palin suggested Beijing's continuing ethnic problems showed it was hard pressed to handle regional problems, according to another attendee.
After leaving office, Palin vanished from public view, ducking mainstream news outlets and communicating with supporters largely via her popular Facebook page.
But she signed with the prestigious Washington Speakers Bureau and reportedly has been flooded with more than a thousand offers.