- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2008

STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. | How excited are Republicans and conservatives for Gov. Sarah Palin?

In this Detroit suburb over the weekend, thousands joined in on an impromptu chant: “Palin! Next president! Palin! Next president!” One woman even held aloft a sign that read “Palin 2012” — apparently unaware that her running mate, Senator what’s-his-name, might just want to seek re-election if he wins the presidency in November.

In just over a week, Mrs. Palin has eclipsed Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee. One woman at a Midwest rally said after her fiery speech, “Boy, I wish she were on the top of the ticket.”

The pro-life mother of five has fired up the conservative base, which was, by nearly all accounts — even from insider Republicans — less than fully enthused about the nomination of a party-bucking maverick who had spent weeks bashing the Republican Party. She has single-handedly swayed fence-sitters into the ticket’s camp, drawing women, abortion-rights opponents, gun enthusiasts and moderate independents who find Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, too liberal.

“We’re here because we are really excited after the appointment of Sarah Palin,” said Angie Scheu of Clarkston, Mich., holding the hand of her small daughter outside an amphitheater packed with 10,000 screaming supporters. “… [I]f he [Mr. McCain] had picked a centrist, liberal-leaning VP, then the base would not have been as excited to come out and vote, and I wouldn’t have been, either.”

That sentiment was heard again and again at campaign stops in Michigan, Wisconsin and Colorado, all battleground states. Women hoisted their young daughters on their shoulders to catch a glimpse of the Republican vice-presidential nominee. McCain supporters already are on a first-name basis with the self-described “hockey mom” — the chant “Sarah! Sarah!” rang out in a main street square in Cedarburg, Wis., in the Michigan amphitheater, and at an airport rally in Colorado Springs.

The conventional wisdom is that the darling of conservatives will not draw the liberal women who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: Mrs. Palin is, after all, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, a budget hawk and a staunch opponent of abortion.

But she has done something in the heartland that has not yet been measured by pollsters and pundits — pushed off the fence Republicans wavering over the moderate Mr. McCain.

“I was probably going to vote for McCain, but I wasn’t overly thrilled,” said Kim Haege, a hockey mom from Denver who wore her son’s Colorado Thunderbirds hockey jersey to a massive rally in Colorado Springs. “When he picked Sarah, I realized he was really going to shake things up.”

Her friend, Jenny McGurk, decked out in her son’s Regis Raiders hockey jersey, also crossed over.

“I was wavering. I always liked McCain, but I really think we need change. I was afraid he was part of the same [Washington] mentality,” she said. “I thought, if nothing else, Obama would make things change. So when she came on the ticket, I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m going to stay with the party.’ ”

The media have helped some Republicans over the hurdle of supporting Mr. McCain, who was steadfastly criticized by conservative talking heads. At a huge rally in Cedarburg, the press corps traveling with Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin were jeered by residents of the small town. They found the coverage insulting of the former PTA member and one-time mayor of a town of roughly 7,000 people.

While Mrs. Palin is not a big hit among the inside-the-Beltway punditocracy — many say her resume is thin and she is not prepared to be a heartbeat away from the presidency — some women have found the coverage sexist.

“I think the press is very liberal and very slanted against the McCain-Palin ticket,” said Linda Green of nearby Mequon. “Would you ask a man if his kids were being taken care of while he’s out campaigning? No.”

The Alaska governor has found a few supporters among the Clinton clan. Debbie Helleberg of Fond du Lac, Wis., said she has voted for presidential candidates from both parties, but this time, she’s going with the Republican ticket, mainly because of Mrs. Palin.

“She’s adding perspective that hasn’t been in the White House for quite a while,” she said.

Two polls taken since the Republican convention ended last week shows Mr. McCain leading or tied with Mr. Obama.

A USA Today/Gallup Poll taken over the weekend shows Mr. McCain leading Mr. Obama by 50 percent to 46 percent among among registered voters.

Rasmussen Reports daily tracking poll reported Sunday that when “leaners” are included, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain are tied at 48 percent.

The response in the small towns that the running mates have visited after the Republican National Convention has been striking. The thousands and thousands of people who have turned out are no doubt there to see Mr. McCain, but the roars for Mrs. Palin often drown out the man at the top of the ticket.

So far, she has given almost the exact same speech she did when she was selected Aug. 29, adding a few applause lines from her highly acclaimed speech to the convention, and she has done no interviews with major media.

Still, the cardboard signs in the crowd are predominantly focused on Mrs. Palin, like the one in Cedarburg that read: “Real Change, A Real Woman, Sarah Palin.” Or another: “Hurricane Sarah leaves liberals spinning.” Or a third that read simply: “Saracuda.”

Her pro-life stance is a very real driving force among conservatives. Even though they know Mr. McCain is on board, Mrs. Palin’s life story — the 44-year-old decided not to abort a baby born in April who she knew would have Down syndrome, and her pregnant, unmarried 17-year-old daughter has decided to keep her child — fills them with a new confidence.

“There was never much question about McCain’s position, but she has strengthened among that base that had questions about his other positions,” said Philip Andris of Colorado Springs, a city at the foot of Pike’s Peak in a county where 67 percent of voters went for President Bush in 2004.

At the last stop of their four-state tour — New Mexico, another swing state — Mrs. Palin and Mr. McCain arrived like rock stars.

After a rousing introduction by actor Robert Duvall, the pair made their entrance by bounding off a “Straight Talk Express” bus that drove straight into the rally’s convention hall, underneath a giant America flag that was raised like a curtain.

As a delighted crowd screamed its approval, the rally was clouded by either exhaust or stage smoke.

Soon, the chant began again: “Sar-ah! Sar-ah!”

On the Straight Talk Express plane, as Mr. McCain flew to Kansas City on Sunday, a reporter asked senior campaign adviser Mark Salter about the “Sarah” chants.

“They’re chanting John McCain, too,” he said.

Valerie Richardson in Colorado Springs contributed to this report.

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