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Sarah Palin endorses Donald Trump, rallying the GOP's conservative ranks

AMES, Iowa — Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice-presidential nominee who became a Tea Party sensation and a favorite of grass-roots conservatives, endorsed Donald J. Trump in Iowa on Tuesday, providing Trump with a potentially significant boost just 13 days before the state's caucuses.

"Are you ready to make America great again?" Palin said with Trump by her side at a rally at Iowa State University. "Are you ready to stump for Trump? I'm here to support the next president of the United States — Donald Trump."

Her support is the highest-profile backing for a Republican contender so far. It came the same day that Iowa's Republican governor, Terry Branstad, said he hopes that Sen. Ted Cruz will be defeated in Iowa, where the Feb. 1 caucuses are a must-win for the Texas senator, who is running neck-and-neck with Trump in state polls.

The endorsement came as Trump was bearing down in the state, holding multiple campaign events and raising expectations about his performance in the race's first nominating contest.

"I am greatly honored to receive Sarah's endorsement," Trump said in a statement trumpeting Palin's decision. "She is a friend, and a high-quality person whom I have great respect for. I am proud to have her support."

In Iowa, where Palin spent years developing support, the endorsement could be especially helpful. Trump has faced questions about whether his campaign's organizing muscle can draw the voters to match his poll numbers come caucus night.

"Over the years Palin has actually cultivated a number of relationships in Iowa," said Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa and publisher of the website The Iowa Republican. "There are the Tea Party activists who still think she's great and a breath of fresh air, but she also did a good job of courting Republican donors in the state," he added.

Other conservatives said that Palin serves as a particularly effective shield against Cruz, who has assiduously courted Iowa's evangelical voters.

"Palin's brand among evangelicals is as gold as the faucets in Trump tower," said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

"Endorsements alone don't guarantee victory, but Palin's embrace of Trump may turn the fight over the evangelical vote into a war for the soul of the party," he said.

Palin could amplify the news media-circus aspects of Trump's candidacy: Like him, she is a reality-TV star accustomed to playing to the cameras and often accused of emphasizing flash over substance.

What's more, while Trump has already shown the ability to garner wall-to-wall cable-news coverage, Palin's active involvement in his campaign could help him deprive Cruz of vital attention in the homestretch to the Feb. 1 caucuses.

As rumors circulated that the endorsement was about to happen, Cruz offered praise for his former close political ally after an aide to the senator mocked the pending endorsement earlier Tuesday. "I love Sarah Palin," the senator told reporters in New Hampshire. "Sarah Palin is fantastic. Without her friendship and support, I wouldn't be in the Senate today. So regardless of what Sarah decides to do in 2016, I will always remain a big, big fan of Sarah Palin."

As word of Palin's endorsement trickled through the Hansen Agricultural Student Learning Center at Iowa State University, the reaction from supporters of Trump who braved snow and frigid temperatures was mixed. Backers of Trump filled a warehouse-style building with a dirt floor that is sometimes used for tractor shows, but most said that it was the candidate that they cared about most, not his new endorsement.

"I'm not here to see her," said Rich Hoffmann, 41, of Ankeny. "Some people it will matter to, but it doesn't to me."

Palin and Trump are not strangers. The two shared pizza along with Trump's wife, Melania, in June 2011, when Palin was considering a presidential run of her own and was making a bus tour around the country. (Trump was mocked at the time for using a knife and fork on his slice.)

They also share a trusted operative: Trump's national political director, Michael Glassner, was chief of staff to Palin's political action committee.

And like Trump, Palin has maverick tendencies. The mantra of her final weeks of the 2008 campaign was "going rogue," as she defied instructions from aides to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party's presidential nominee.

Little-known before McCain picked her as his running mate, Palin ultimately eclipsed McCain in popularity and polls show her maintaining strong support among Republicans. She has endured as a coveted endorser with an impressive fundraising list. After the loss in 2008, she declined to finish her term in Alaska, and went on to become a reality TV star and a Fox News commentator. The endorsement of Trump puts Palin squarely back in the center of the media maelstrom.

Palin endorsed several of Trump's Republican rivals in their statewide races, including Cruz during his Senate bid in Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Cruz, after his 2012 primary victory over the incumbent lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, said he would not have made it to the Senate without Palin's backing.

For Trump, who is trying to accrue other endorsements in the coming weeks, the backing of high-profile Republicans could dent the outsider-to-politics aura that has been elemental to his success in the polls before the voting has begun. But the support of Palin, a darling of the Tea Party insurgency, could help inoculate him from the attacks.

The endorsement comes as Cruz is facing increasing criticism in Iowa for his opposition to federal ethanol mandates, highlighted by the criticism from Branstad, whose son works for a group promoting ethanol, the corn-based fuel that is a crucial Iowa industry.

"Ted Cruz is ahead right now. What we're trying to do is educate the people in the state of Iowa," Branstad told reporters at the Renewable Fuels Summit in Altoona. "He is the biggest opponent of renewable fuels. He actually introduced a bill in 2013 to immediately eliminate the Renewable Fuel Standard."

"He's heavily financed by Big Oil," the governor added. "I think it would be a big mistake for Iowa to support him."

The remark was highly unusual for Branstad, an establishment Republican who nonetheless has stayed out of his party's presidential primaries in the past.

Alan Rappeport reported from Ames, Iowa, and Maggie Haberman reported from New York. Matt Flegenheimer contributed reporting from Center Barnstead, N.H.