Is McCain-Palin turning into Palin-McCain?

A virtual unknown until recently, Alaska governor becoming star of GOP campaign

Posted: Sunday, September 07, 2008

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The banners, buttons and signs say McCain-Palin, but the crowds say something else.

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Stephan Savoia / The Associated Press
Stephan Savoia / The Associated Press

"Sa-rah! Pa-lin!" came the chant at a Colorado Springs rally on Saturday moments before Republican nominee John McCain took the stage with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a woman who was virtually unknown to the nation just a week earlier. The day before, thousands screamed "Sa-rah! Sa-rah! Sa-rah!" at an amphitheater outside Detroit.

"Real change with a real woman," read one sign at a Wisconsin rally. "Hurricane Sarah leaves liberals spinning," cried another.

In the short time since McCain spirited the 44-year-old first-term governor out of Alaska and onto a national stage as his running mate, Palin has become an instant celebrity. And since her speech at the Republican National Convention, watched by more than 40 million Americans, she is emerging as the main attraction for many voters at their campaign appearances.

"She's the draw for a lot of people," said Marilyn Ryman, who came to see her at the Colorado rally inside an airport hangar. "The fact that she's someone new, not the old everything we've seen before."

McCain has sought to portray Palin as a bulldog who will help him "shake things up" on Capitol Hill.

Washington, he said Saturday, is "going to get to know her, but I can't guarantee you they'll love her."

"We do!" came a cry from the crowd.

Perhaps recognizing the excitement she is generating, the McCain campaign was planning to keep Palin with McCain for several more days, rather than dispatch her to campaign by herself, as had initially been discussed.

On Saturday, McCain and Palin rode their post-convention wave into the competitive West, where Democrats have made recent gains in traditional Republican strongholds.

After a day of talking up economic themes in the Midwest, the pair attracted thousands at a rally in Colorado Springs, a city at the foot of Pike's Peak that is home to many conservatives and military families. They were to head later to New Mexico.

It was McCain's first appearance in Colorado since the Democrats had their convention in Denver last month.

Both campaigns consider the battleground state in play with the election less than two months away.

"Colorado, it's going to be a hard-fought battle here," Palin said. As soon as she began speaking, a group of supporters interrupted her with a cheer of "Sa-rah! Sa-rah!"

Palin is even getting the star treatment from celebrity magazines, Web sites and television programs, which have played up her personal story as a mother of five children, one of whom is 17 years old, unmarried and pregnant.

The excitement with which people are turning out to see Palin could complicate a key line of attack that the McCain campaign has been building against Democrat Barack Obama for months.

Republicans have sought to cast Obama's support as nothing more than shallow adoration and hype befitting a movie star. They have mocked his appeal among Hollywood types and compared his star status to that of lightweights like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. They say there is nothing of substance to back up the candidacy of the Illinois senator.

Palin herself asked in her convention speech what happens "when the stadium lights go out, and those Styrofoam Greek columns are hauled back to some studio lot - what exactly is our opponent's plan?"

Obama has been careful in his comments about her, saying Saturday that she has flip-flopped on spending earmarks, but also calling her a "skillful politician."

Voters interviewed at rallies said their support for McCain has been cemented with his pick of Palin, who is a social conservative and reassures many who were wary about McCain on those issues.

Patricia Hoskins said she was already backing McCain but that Palin "really lit the fire under me."

And in the brief time that McCain and Palin have been campaigning since she introduced herself to the nation, many women at their events have said they identify with her personal struggles.

"She's every mom," said Lindsey Denny, a mother of 7, including a set of quintuplets, two of whom have special needs like Palin's infant son with Down syndrome. Denny said Palin's inclusion on the ticket was "110 percent" the reason why she went to see her Saturday.

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