Elon, North Carolina
Six thousand tickets were grabbed up in three hours for Sarah Palin's speech here at the baseball field of Elon University. An even larger crowd--9,000 inside, 3,000 outside--showed up across the state in Greenville a few days earlier. But impressive attendance isn't the half of it. What's extraordinary is the effect Palin has on crowds. "When she hits the stage audiences erupt and they don't calm down," says Republican senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, who appeared with Palin here and in Greenville. "I've been with Bush, Clinton, 41--and I've never seen anything like this."
Her speech--a standard stump speech extolling John McCain and zinging Barack Obama--hardly matters. People not only want to see her, Burr says, "they want to touch her. Their perception is she's one of them. It has nothing to do with ideology. It's not about Christian conservatives. It goes far beyond all that."
Whatever else the 2008 presidential campaign may produce, it has created a new Republican star--Palin--a political natural who's at ease in front of crowds and whose cheerfulness, self-confidence, and optimism haven't slackened in the face of unusually harsh--and often highly personal-- attacks by Democrats and the mainstream media.
Palin can't explain the exuberant crowds or is too modest to try. She "didn't know what to expect" once she began campaigning as McCain's vice presidential running mate, she told me last week. The enthusiasm is "encouraging and energizing," she says, and "the most pleasant surprise has been independents and Democrats who've shown such great enthusiasm."
Palin's appeal is not that hard to define. She's neither outspoken nor eloquent. And the conservatism she espouses is fairly conventional. It's who she is--her story, her biography--that has stirred fascination and enables her to connect with voters. She's a mother of five, a serious Christian, a tough-minded governor of Alaska, a fearless slayer of (male) political bigwigs, a beauty queen, a hunter. Palin, as best I can describe it, exudes a kind of middle-class magnetism. It's subdued but nonetheless very powerful.
Republicans, even some McCain advisers, have yet to realize the enormous asset they have in Palin: She's the party's most crowd-pleasing and exciting figure since Ronald Reagan. Okay, she's not a "new Reagan." That role will remain eternally unfilled. Palin lacks Reagan's decades of political involvement, his knowledge, and especially his grounding in conservative thought.
Her conservatism is more instinctive. Her Republican heroes, besides McCain, come to a grand total of two, Reagan and Lincoln. And for now, she's a neophyte in national politics, having been picked by McCain less than two months ago.
But Palin does have a few of Reagan's skills. Reagan used to say that having been an actor often came in handy in politics. Palin tosses off corny lines like "Say it ain't so, Joe," the one she ad-libbed in her debate with Joe Biden. She knows how to speed to the end of a sentence when a burst of applause is coming. She's adept at accentuating a point--for instance, the "news flash" for the media in her convention speech. She can act. And of course she winks.
Several of the Palin tales I've heard from those who've worked with her in the campaign are quite revealing. She famously kept going without a hitch in her convention address despite a TelePrompTer that rushed past paragraphs before she could read them.
When she left the stage, Fred Thompson, the actor and former Republican presidential candidate, asked about the problem, one that might have rattled a veteran speaker. "It was okay," she said matter-of-factly. "I had the script in front of me."
Palin's stage presence and an Obama-like composure while in the spotlight surprised her campaign handlers. She practiced the convention speech more than a dozen times. But her best performance by far came when she actually delivered the speech before more than 20,000 people at the convention and a national television audience of roughly 37 million. "It was like she'd been doing this all her life," a Republican associate said. His point was that she had never before done anything even close to that.
Another Republican (a Palin admirer) told me that in a room of 20 women, you'd never pick out Palin as the one who's the elected governor. "She doesn't stand out in a group the way Reagan did," the Republican said. "But when she goes into these places [for campaign rallies], it's different. She's got this extra thing."
The campaign advisers assigned to prepare Palin for media interviews and the veep debate couldn't have missed this quality. But they simply didn't trust her to perform adequately in those settings. She would need weeks of intense training and study. They were wrong, and at Palin's expense.
In the weeks after the convention, she was limited to two major TV interviews. When she did poorly in one--the Katie Couric interview--Democrats and hostile columnists unloaded, calling her unqualified to be vice president. There was little contrary evidence in the press by which to judge her or defend her.
I asked Palin whether she'd do things differently if she could repeat those weeks. She answered by silently mouthing "yes." When two aides--we were on a McCain-Palin bus with staff and security--said "yes" aloud, she chimed in, "Yes yes, yes, yes."
The alternative would have been what she's doing now: three or four talk radio shows a day, plus interviews on local TV and cable news, appearances on some national shows such as Saturday Night Live, and chats with local print reporters and a few national political writers.
It should have been obvious she could handle the media. When I spent nearly two hours with Palin last year at the governor's house in Juneau, I was struck by three things. She's very smart, brimming with self-confidence, and not intimidated by the media.
Now, despite her political talent, Palin's future is unclear. If McCain wins the election, that will simplify her political life. She'll be America's first female vice president and the most prominent national leader aside from McCain. And she'll be heir apparent to President McCain.
If McCain loses, she'll still be governor of Alaska. In fact, she'll be the state's most famous governor ever and its first political celebrity. That won't be enough to make her an influential player in national affairs. Palin, by the way, is unsure about her ultimate role in national politics even if McCain wins, but it's bound to be more complicated if he loses.
"I don't know what kind of role the Republican party would want me to play," she told me. "In the past, I have not been one to be considered for anything by the hierarchy of the party. Certainly not in my state. In some sense, I ran against my party."
Palin remains skeptical of Republicans. "I would love to promote the party ideals if we're going to live out the ideals and maybe allow other American voters to understand what the principles of the party are," she says. "We've got to be assured we have enough people in the party who will live out those ideals and it's not just rhetoric. Otherwise, I'd be wasting my time. There are a lot of things I would and should be doing."
There's a model, however, for a small state governor who wants to be a national politician. It's the Bill Clinton model. While he was merely governor of Arkansas, he spoke all over the country, headed a moderate Democratic organization, courted national political reporters, and connected with a group of smart, young political operatives.
Palin could do the same, but not easily. She has young children, no team of political strategists to advise her, and is from a state even more remote than Arkansas. Whether they know it or not, Republicans have a huge stake in Palin. If, after the election, they let her slip into political obscurity, they'll be making a tragic mistake.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.