STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich.—John McCain may have swapped one enthusiasm gap for another.
As he touched down in suburbs outside of Milwaukee and Detroit, the just crowned Republican nominee found himself first on the newly-fashioned signs proclaiming the unlikely GOP ticket but seemingly second in the hearts of the thousands who thronged rallies to catch their first glimpse in person of Sarah Palin.
McCain drew loud applause, first at a morning appearance in the downtown of a quaint, Republican-leaning Wisconsin village and then at a more-boisterous amphitheater rally here in Michigan’s working-class Macomb County.
Yet it was Palin who many, especially women, in both crowds were thrilled to see up close just days after she exploded onto the national political scene.
Clutching signs with messages such as “Girl Power” and “Sarah Is My American Idol,” moms and their daughters lined the barricades just outside The Chocolate Shop in Cedarburg, Wisconsin that served as the backdrop for the rally.
The women said they had come to see both members of the new Republican ticket, but couldn’t fake it when asked who they were more excited to lay eyes on.
“Sarah!” a small group of them yelled .
Meghan Groppe, 12, of Cedarburg explained the enthusiasm.
“Because if they get voted in she’ll be the first lady vice-president,” Groppe said, flashing a smile missing a few teeth.
More expansive but similarly enthusiastic was Cheryl Hauswirth of nearby Grafton, Wisconsin.
“She's a real women, she's a real feminist but she's not strident—she's like us,” said Hauswirth, a middle-aged mother who didn’t offer her age. “She’s strong, powerful and opinionated, all the things a women should be while still retaining her femininity, her womanhood.”
If McCain was bothered by his number two stealing some of his thunder, he didn’t show it.
Rather, he seemed to revel in the seeming affirmation of his risky selection of a political unknown.
“Isn’t this the most marvelous running mate in the history of this nation?” he enthused to the thousands of Wisconsin voters who jammed an intersection just down the block from the Rivoli Theater where the marquee welcomed the new Republican ticket.
When he asked how many in the audience saw her speech, nearly every hand went up along with a rousing cheer.
“She has done so much already to lift the spirits and morale of people all over this country,” McCain said, but he could have been easily talking about what the Alaska governor and overnight sensation on the Right has done for his own candidacy.
Beginning with her announcement last Friday in Dayton, Ohio, McCain has drawn more enthusiasm and packed in more people to his events than at any time during his campaign.
The two events Friday both drew about 10,000 people, comparable numbers to what the newly-formed ticket saw last weekend .
Sure, part of this uptick comes naturally with the arrival of the fall campaign season. And, for months, Barack Obama has been routinely bringing out these sort of numbers.
But Palin, with her out-of-nowhere debut, compelling personal story and first-rate convention speech, has injected new life into the GOP and piqued the curiosity of voters who are only mildly interested in politics.
Mary Beth Brennan of Linden, Michigan caught some of Palin’s speech Wednesday, was impressed and let a political junkie friend drag her here to Freedom Theater to see the GOP ticket Friday night, where many women were sporting just-made “Go Sarah Go” buttons on their shirts.
“I thought she gave a good speech,” said Brennan, “And I wanted to see her in person.”
Diane Grifo, a stalwart Republican from Warren, Michigan, said she would havecome to the rally even if Palin had not been tapped.
But Grifo said she had been worried about the enthusiasm level in her party this year—until Palin.
“I think that she really offers new hope to the party,” she said.
As for the lady of the moment, she played it safe in her first day as the official vice-presidential nominee.
Introducing McCain at both stops, she reprised well-received lines from her convention speech almost verbatim, criticizing Obama and praising her ticketmate. In Michigan, she used a teleprompter to read her lines, a campaign aide confirms.
On the rope line following both events, she received as much attention as McCain, with many women reaching out for handshakes and holding up digital cameras. Some clutched copies of this week’s Newsweek in hopes of adding an autograph to the cover of the new Republican duo.
In Wisconsin, after one side of the podium received attention from McCain, they quickly began a “Sarah” chant in hopes of attracting his number two. They had to wait as she and McCain first dashed into the ice cream shop, where Palin ordered, naturally, Moose Tracks.
McCain took the lead in delivering the re-tooled message, emphasizing the against-the-grain tendencies he shared with a women who only became governor after toppling an incumbent governor and institution in Alaska politics.
“Send a team of mavericks who aren’t afraid to go to Washington and break some china,” he said in Michigan.
In Wisconsin, he offered a stern anti-establishment warning meant to belie his 25 years in Congress.
“It’s over. It’s over for the special interests, we’re going to start working for the people of this country,” McCain promised, singling out “the pork-barrelers and the lobbyists.”
But for the many who showed up to see the newly-minted Republican team, it wasn’t any issue or political posture that had brought them out.
It was just a women that they saw a lot of themselves in. Or, as one homemade sign put it, “Pro-Life Hockey Moms 4 Palin.”
“She’s got a real family with real troubles, just like the rest of us,” said Melody Halstrom, a middle-aged women from River Hills, Wisconsin, who came over to the Cedarburg rally. “You know, she’s got teenagers,” Halstrom said, alluding to without actually bringing up the well-publicized pregnancy of Palin’s unwed 17-year-old daughter.
As for the men in the audience, they were excited to see Palin in person, too, if for different reasons.
“She’s good-looking,” exclaimed Scott Kennison, drawing playful rolls of the eyes from the women surrounding him in Cedarburg.