LATROBE, Pa. —- The crowds are rowdier and the rope lines are longer, and sometimes — as happened earlier this week in Lancaster, Pa. — there are even cheerleaders.
Welcome to the new, Sarah Palin-powered McCain campaign.
The once-sluggish John McCain campaign has wrapped itself tightly around the Alaska governor, who often seems to overshadow the presidential nominee himself in appearances across the country.
Over the past week, a Palin Truth Squad formed to defend the governor against sexist remarks. "I [heart] Sarah" stickers were widely distributed. And even the music at campaign events now screams Girl Power, with Dolly Parton’s “Straight Talk” and Heart's "Barracuda" mixed in with the standard country classics played at events.
The new focus of McCain’s campaign is, at least in part, a response to the enthusiasm of the Republican grass roots. But the changes also reflect the depth of Palin’s retail politicking skills. For all her talk of being a simple PTA mom, Sarah Barracuda is a show-stealing political star.
Palin, who favors well-tailored suits and high, red, patent leather heels, sounds like a suburban mom — but one you probably wouldn't want to cross at the school board meeting.
“Wow, oh this is so nice. Thank you so much,” she cooed at a Tuesday rally in southwest Ohio. “This is what 'American' is all about, is small-town America.”
At each stop, she delivers nearly the exact same stump speech, a greatest hits version of her convention address. True Palin fans have surely heard the lines before, but she still manages to draw rousing applause after almost every sentence.
In her distinctive twang, Palin delivers a conversational but biting speech, introducing her family and her record and praising McCain as “the only great man in this race.”
When she finally takes aim at the opposition, her attacks are delivered in perky, dulcet tones that polish off the sharp edges.
“We just don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening and then turns around and talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and their guns when those people aren't listening,” said Palin in Pennsylvania, referencing a controversial statement Obama made several months ago.
“We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Lancaster and then maybe another way in San Francisco.”
The campaign does all it can to fan and foster the conservative love affair with Palin.
Campaign surrogates talk about “Sarah,” as supporters almost always call her, in speeches heavy on superlatives.
“Gov. Palin is the most remarkable success story in the history of American politics,” said former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson at a Fairfax City, Virginia, rally on Wednesday.
Once McCain’s GOP primary opponent, Thompson added that Palin was “undergoing the most vicious assault that anyone has ever seen in public life.”
Even the candidate’s wife, Cindy McCain, spoke more about Palin than about her husband at the Virginia rally.
“More importantly, I am so honored to introduce to you someone who I’ve gotten to know in the past few weeks, who we’ve known of for a long time and, more importantly, someone who represents to so many of us the offer of change,” she said of Palin. “She’s a great, Western woman.”
John McCain clearly recognizes his running mate’s considerable appeal and is intent on not getting in the way.
While Palin speaks, animated and always energetic, McCain stands stiffly by her side. Occasionally, he flashes a thumbs-up. Once in a while, he gives a quick smile. Mostly, though, he just looks a little bewildered by how the attention has shifted.
At the Fairfax City rally, he talked about her record as much as is own, touting her tax cuts, political toughness and even her national security abilities — an area McCain prides himself on.
“I can’t wait until I introduce her to Washington, D.C.,” said McCain. “Let there be no doubt we are going to win this election.”
Yet when the self-described “team of mavericks” concludes the rally to work the rope line, stark and unmistakable stylistic differences emerge.
McCain works a crowd like a veteran campaigner. There’s a brisk hand shake here, an autograph there, maybe an extra moment or two with a veteran, and it's off to the next event. On Tuesday, McCain did a quick spin through the Lancaster audience. His shake-and-run seems as distant as Alaska from Palin’s warm rope line etiquette.
Palin, however, spent at least 15 minutes working the line in Pennsylvania. Babies were kissed. Signs were signed and many outstretched hands grabbed. When Palin reached the end of the rope line, she turned around and headed back for a second pass.
“I love you, Sarah,” screamed Gardner Smith, a 19-year-old student perched up in tree for a better view.
Doesn’t he love McCain, too?
“I guess Sarah is a little sexier,” he said.