Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's rejection of an invitation to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February is arousing widespread criticism and speculation, especially in light of her headliner role at the National Tea Party Convention scheduled for just two weeks earlier.

CPAC has been the primary yearly get-together for movement conservatives for decades. It was the scene last year of Rush Limbaugh's keynote address, in which he called on conservatives to take back the country and effectively established himself as the leader of the Republican Party.

Palin turned down an invitation to last year's festivities as well -- but that was before the rise of the Tea Party movement had raised the stakes on all sides.

Mainstream observers tend to see Palin's decision as a lapse in judgment. Politico, for example,suggests that her choice to go with the "high energy, anti-establishment tea party movement" instead of the more established CPAC has "renewed questions about her political judgment and brought scrutiny on the Tea Party Convention."

Frequent GOP spokesman Brad Blakeman told Politico, "It’s a missed opportunity for her, for sure. CPAC is an established mainstay of conservatism that those seeking to be active in 2010, 2012 and beyond should take advantage of to be seen and heard, while the tea parties are a manifestation of frustration that is loosely organized and hasn’t proven itself at the polls."

Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic further points out that "Money could also be an issue: Palin charges $100,000 for speaking appearances, and CPAC, as a policy, doesn't pay its speakers. If that were part of the issue, it wouldn't be the first time Palin's speaking fees prevented her from addressing an influential conservative crowd."

The Tea Party Convention has drawn particular criticism for charging $549 for the weekend event -- or $349 to attend Palin's speech alone -- a figure which seems bound to exclude many of the more genuinely grassroots tea partiers, while possibly accumulating a warchest for an attempt to take over the Republican Party from within.

Newsweek's Suzy Khimm points to speculation that "the movement might turn into 'a hard-right takeover bid aimed at turning the GOP into a mirror image of its ideological obsessions, ranging from gun rights to anti-immigration sentiment to radical reductions in taxes and spending.'"

"Given the populist appeal of the Tea Party brand," Khimm comments, "it’s no surprise that the religious right and other established factions of the GOP would try to jump aboard—and that Tea Party organizers with national aspirations would welcome them as they try to increase their political traction. But these established groups also operate according to the dictums of any Beltway political machine, using their base to raise funds and support their national operation. And such an approach has already alienated some of the true believers who are still its animating base."

Some conservatives however, see more subtle factors at work in Palin's decision to favor the Tea Party Convention over CPAC. Rick Moran, for example, comments that "Sarah Palin is making some shrewd political moves lately that are likely to vault her into a very favorable position as leader of the only real 'reform' faction in the Republican party. ... By dumping on CPAC ... Palin is sending the message that the conservative elites who run the conference and dominate its programs will have to go through her to get the support of the conservative base. ... For more traditional conservatives like Pawlenty and Romney, the road to the White House will go through Sarah Palin."

Missed opportunity, simple greed, or shrewd calculation? Only time will tell the real meaning of Sarah Palin's Tea Party gambit.