WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – As Sarah Palin shook hands and blew kisses and signed signs after delivering her stump speech on a baseball field here on the evening of Oct. 30, Diane Taylor stood on the pitcher’s mound and wondered what might have been if John McCain didn’t hold back the Republican ticket.
“I think youth and energy are what sweeps people into the White House,” said Taylor, a 42-year-old mother from Williamsport. “John McCain could have done a lot more with this campaign and she wanted to do more but they never let her loose.”
She pointed at her daughters, who were watching Palin wave goodbye to the crowd before hopping on another flight and starting another day of campaigning in Pennsylvania.
“I tell my daughters,” said Taylor. “If they lose, she’ll be president in four years. If they win it will be eight years from now.”
Like most people at the rally on Thursday night, where more than 10,000 people filled the bleachers and spilled out into right field, Taylor still remained committed to the McCain candidacy and expressed optimism about his chances in Pennsylvania, a state that, by McCain’s own reckoning, he needs to win to have any shot at the presidency.
But with McCain trailing here by more than nine percentage points according to most polls, and McCain aides increasingly airing their displeasure to reporters about Palin’s tendency of late to distract the campaign by going off-message in a seemingly self-serving manner, the question of Palin’s future plans is a pertinent one. And while her mentions of her wardrobe or her assertion that “I’m not doing this for naught” make Republican leaders wince, she continues to delight the hard-core Republican supporters who could potentially serve as her base.
“I believe she’ll be the first female president of the United States,” said Michael Levan, 54, a small-business owner who lives outside Williamsport. He said that her entry into the election was as if “Elvis had entered the building” and said, “She grabbed through the TV and grabbed me. She connects with ordinary people. Plus she’s not bad to look at.”
(For all the enthusiasm Levan expressed for Palin and McCain, whom he called a “straight shooter,” his true motivation for attending the rally seemed rooted more in his visceral, and racially motivated, dislike of Barack Obama. “He’s a little chimpanzee,” said Levan, who wore a shirt that said “Bada Bing” above the silhouette of a naked reclining woman, and attended the rally with his parents. “He’s a socialist, Marxist, Leninist little chimp.”)
On Thursday evening, Palin made sure to provide no new fodder for the story line that she was inciting the base or laying the groundwork for a 2012 run.
If anything, she was a little boring.
A few hours after Joe Biden, who had been in town for his own campaign events, left Williamsport, Republican supporters started filing into Bowman Field. At around 6 the crowd filled the last empty seats of the baseball stadium in a town that is the birthplace of the Little League and the home of the Little League Museum. Many attendees wore McCain-Palin buttons, and NObama buttons and wore T-shirts with Palin’s name on them over sweaters and jackets. They listened to the local marching band play as cheerleaders clapped. They admired the “Welcome Sarah” sign on the scoreboard. They sang along with Whitesnake singing “Here I Go Again On My Own” over the sound system. And for an hour and a half, they waited.
Finally, they bowed their heads for a reverend’s prayer asking forgiveness for their opponents spilling “innocent blood through the course of abortions” and “trying to stop the sanctity of marriage” and trying to “remove the guns from our cabinets” and clenched their eyes shut as the pastor said, “Father, tonight I thank you for raising such a woman as Governor Sarah Palin,” and asked God to give her “the words and the wisdom and the great grace to continue.” Then local officials and candidates offered dry speeches that elicited no reaction from the crowd other than chants of “We Can’t Hear You.”
A little after 7:30, the small detail of traveling press that follows Palin around took their seats and Palin and her husband walked out onstage. An enormous American flag draped from a construction crane hung over her, and a blue campaign sign that read “Victory Pennsylvania” stood behind her. The Sly and the Family Stone song “Everyday People” accompanied them.
Palin, dressed in a snug-fitting blue jacket and a pink scarf, waved at the crowd. Her husband, wearing a blue warmup jacket, smiled brightly.
People screamed and hooted and hollered and chanted “Sa-Rah, Sa-Rah.”
She said she was excited to be in the home of the Little League World Series. “This is a great place,” she said. “We see on TV every season with the Little Leaguers there and I’m sure you’re all pretty doggone proud of the world champion Phillies. Congratulations. Someone I’d like you all to meet and that is my husband, Alaska’s first dude, Todd Palin. Todd is a commercial fisherman and he’s a production operator in Alaska’s North Slope oil fields and Todd is a proud member of the United Steelworkers union and he is the four-time world champion snow machine racer, the Iron Dog. So great for him to be here on the trail with us.”
The crowd cheered and a whooped throughout this introduction. Then she gave her speech to what she called the “hardworking people” and “patriots,” asking them if they were “ready to make John McCain the next president of the United States.” She drummed the podium and pointed repeatedly at people in the crowd. But once she got into the thick of her speech, the crowd got quieter.
On taxes, she accused Obama of “spreading the wealth” and said that when it came to his tax policy, he was “kinda flip-floppin’ on the details.” It was all fine and proper, she added, to “call someone out on their plans, their record and their associations.”
When she started talking about energy, a small chant of “drill, baby, drill” emanated from the small stands behind her. She quickly turned and tried to pick up on the thread. “Yes,” she said. “You betcha. Drill, baby, drill and mine, baby, mine.”
The chant quickly died out.
She built McCain up at every turn and concluded by saying, “Pennsylvania, there is only one man in this race who has ever really fought for you.” She did not utter the word terrorist. She made no reference to Obama’s otherness.
She simply did her job and endeared herself more than ever to her party’s base.
“I love her,” said Jill Webb, a 61-year-old banker from Williamsport, who smiled adoringly throughout the governor’s speech. “She’s exactly what we need.”