FAIRBANKS - This is where it all began for Republican Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Now, nearly two years after being sworn in as the state's first female governor, Palin returned Wednesday to Fairbanks - this time as John McCain's running mate.
She arrived to find supporters jammed in an aircraft hangar, there to see Palin's first appearance in Alaska since McCain named her to the national ticket on Aug. 29.
A crowd, estimated by the organizers, the Alaska Republican Party, at 3,000 went wild when Palin entered the room, shouting: "Sarah! Palin!"
"John McCain and I are ready, and with your help, we are going to win," Palin told the crowd.
The speech, which lasted about 15 minutes, ended with confetti being shot out of a cannon. She then shook supporters' hands as the hangar emptied out.
Debbie Ueeck was one of the early arrivals, waiting patiently for hours while reading a recently published biography of Palin.
Ueeck traveled 100 miles north from the town of Delta with her husband, Darryl, and daughters, Heather and Heidi.
"I like her because she's a new face," Debbie Ueeck said. "She breathes new life into politics."
Not far behind the Ueecks was Carl St. George of Fairbanks with his 3-year-old daughter, Haven, who wore a gray T-shirt with red letters stating: "Sarah says I'm NOT a choice" referencing Palin's anti-abortion stance.
But it was Palin's work advancing a natural gas pipeline project, designed to tap into the rich fields of the North Slope, that impressed St. George.
Palin and McCain have differed on whether to drill in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and St. George says it's important that Palin takes her support for ANWR exploration to Washington, D.C.
"She brings sanity to energy policy," St. George said. "I didn't really care for McCain's energy policy, but Sarah Palin knows what she's doing with oil and gas."
Palin has remained highly popular, in part because of her gregarious personality that she brings to face-to-face with the state's residents. By contrast, McCain finished fourth in the Alaska Republican primary.
It's Palin's personal touch that Fairbanks resident Rita McGrath said may be lost if she and McCain win in the November general election.
McGrath said she has met Palin on three of the governor's previous trips to Fairbanks, including her inauguration Dec. 4, 2006.
"See, I brought my lipstick," McGrath said, referring to Palin's now oft-repeated assessment of the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull - lipstick.
Not everyone, however, was happy to see Palin return to Fairbanks, and there were about 70 protesters outside the airport grounds, including Nina Harun of Fairbanks.
She said she voted for Palin but believes the governor has sold out to the Republican party and set aside the so-called maverick streak that helped get her elected.
"That's not the Sarah Palin I voted for," said Harun, who held up a sign that said, "Soccer Mom for Obama."
"I would have voted for her for governor again, if she ran, but now I won't," she said, if McCain and Palin lose in the general election.
Protesters also held signs critical of Palin's position on polar bears. Palin opposes listing polar bears as a threatened specials for fear it will cripple offshore oil and gas development.
One sign featuring the pictures of Palin and polar bears read: "Which one of these is true? A) One of these has seen the effects of climate change. B) One of these has been in international waters lately. C) All of the above."
Before supporters arrived, volunteers showed up wearing T-shirts bearing support, like the one worn by 7-year-old Annaka O'Donoghue. The shirt's back read: When I grow up, I just want to be like Sarah Palin."
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