If you close your eyes and think, "Diehard Sarah Palin supporter," an image of Kevin DuJan is unlikely to come to mind.
A 33-year-old gay man who works as a development consultant and freelance writer, DuJan has long considered himself a Clinton Democrat. During the 2008 primaries, he spent his weekdays running phone banks for Hillary Clinton out of his home in the Boystown neighborhood of Chicago and traveled to 26 states and Puerto Rico on behalf of the candidate.
But after Clinton suspended her campaign, DuJan made a dramatic about face and spent the general election volunteering for the Republican ticket.
When John McCain named Sarah Palin his vice presidential nominee, DuJan was overjoyed, and Palin quickly became his new political idol. He is now eagerly awaiting the arrival of February 6, 2011, the date he has decided that Sarah Palin will announce her 2012 presidential campaign in Tampico, Illinois, to mark the 100th anniversary of hometown hero Ronald Reagan's birthday.
DuJan has even picked out the color he wants Palin to use for her presidential campaign logo (green, in order to dilute criticisms from the left that she is anti-environment).
"I make people in the neighborhood mad all the time because I'm not a liberal," DuJan says over coffee at Nookies Tree Restaurant, where the colors of the rainbow flag appear on nearly every corner and adult boutiques are easier to find than convenience stores. "Here in the neighborhood, if you don't toe the liberal line, they immediately attack you."
The website that DuJan founded in support of Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, Hillbuzz.org, is now among the cadre of pro-Palin online destinations that serve as clearinghouses for news and analysis of all things Palin.
Dujan and four of his friends who live in Boystown shape HillBuzz with a relentlessly anti-Obama tenor and a promise that they will never forget how they feel Clinton was wronged during the 2008 campaign.
The five of them are all gay, and Dujan says that he often gets emails from social conservatives who previously held negative attitudes toward gay people that the Hillbuzz site, which speaks so favorably of Palin, had made them reconsider.
They share a conviction that Palin has taken over Clinton's mantle and will become the nation's first "madam president." And they intend to be at the forefront of helping her do so.
"I wish that we had started in 2006 for Hillary and had groundwork in place and really had our teams together," says DuJan, who has seen Palin speak in person about eight times. "There's only one other person I would do this for again, and it's Sarah. I'll go all in for her, too, in any way that I can."
Palin reminds DuJan of his aunts and grandmas that he grew up around in northeast Ohio, but he insists that it is not the mere fact that Palin is a woman that attracts him to her politically. He admires her accomplishments as governor, and at least as importantly, the fearlessness he says she exhibits in the face of the same kind of attacks that Clinton once faced.
He is convinced that the media is little more than a propaganda machine for the Obama administration and lives in fear of a Palin nomination that might derail the president that they anointed.
"They just want to stop the woman," he says.
Early next year, DuJan expects to make the transition from online rabble-rouser to dedicated campaign worker.
A Passionate Base to a Presidential Campaign?
If Palin embarks on a presidential run next year, all signs indicate that it would be the fiercely loyal, yet decidedly nontraditional operatives like DuJan who would form the backbone of her campaign. Other Republican candidates will benefit from having more seasoned organizations, but none will surpass the fervor and energy that these "Palin-heads" are already providing on behalf of their political heroine.
But Palin clearly has the fire in her belly that is required for any would-be president and has indicated on many occasions that she is interested in the nation's top job. Ever since her days on the Wasilla City Council, she has benefited from being grossly underestimated.
Most importantly, there may be no other politician who retains the level of devotion that Palin enjoys among millions of Americans. They may be in the minority, but they are certainly not lacking in zeal.
Of course, other national politicians attract passionate support, but with Palin's biggest fans, the devotion to the former Alaska governor resides on a deeply personal level that seems unique in American life.
"She's our family, and you protect your family; it's like the mafia," Coulter says. "She's just one of us, and when they insult her, they're insulting millions of us."
A 41-year-old married mother of three from Andover, Kansas, Coulter's life experience mirrors Palin's in several ways.
Both women grew up in rural areas, played basketball in high school, and studied journalism in college. Like Palin, Coulter is a writer, having penned a satirical book called "Advice to Sarah Palin From the Know-It-Alls," which she intends to independently publish this summer.
Listening to Coulter speak, it doesn't take long to notice her uncannily Palin-esque way of describing events that are a big deal ("dill") or political views that are real ("rill"). She even throws the occasional "you betcha" into conversation.
"I think people realize I've listened to Sarah Palin so long, I'm starting to sound like her," she says with a laugh.
Her speaking patterns and personal background notwithstanding, Coulter is in some ways as unlikely a Palin devotee as DuJan is. As a young woman, she was a died-in-the-wool liberal who protested the first Gulf War and cast her first vote in a presidential election for Jessie Jackson in the 1988 Utah Democratic primary.
Now Coulter devotes at least an hour or two each day to Palin-related research and writing.
"I've never spent this much time really obsessed about what's going on in the country and following one particular leader and feeling so inspired to get involved," she says. "I have to question myself turning into this Sarah Palin groupie, or this Sarah Palin clone, or whatever."
When the "Going Rogue" book tour rolled through Springfield, Missouri, in December of 2009, Coulter and her cousin camped out overnight at the Borders parking lot with about 700 of their closest friends, as temperatures hovered in the 20s.
"We got there at 2 p.m. the day before the book signing was to occur at 10 a.m. the next day," she recalls. "We got so cold, we went to warm up in the car for an hour or so in the middle of the night."
From "Deadheads" to "Palin-Heads"
In trying to explain the diverse community that has formed around a shared sense of devotion to Sarah Palin, Coulter draws an analogy to "Deadheads," who for decades traveled far and wide in support of a musical group that they connected with on a deeply personal level.
"Yeah, they loved the music, but it was this whole identity," she says. "The Grateful Dead represented a way of living, a way of thinking, and people globbed onto that and were in harmony with that, and you shared this community with other people who had likeminded thoughts. Sarah Palin, it's the same way, only what they represent is quite a bit different obviously, but it's an identity … and then the cult following. Jerry Garcia, he was beloved, and I think that Sarah is definitely beloved."
Another trait that these "Palin-heads" have in common with Deadheads is their willingness to travel far and wide to see the main act in person, and once is rarely enough.
"I was really drawn to go," says Ross, who is also a member of the Federal Election Commission-registered 2012 Draft Sarah Committee. "This might seem kind of strange, but I just felt to go. I felt like I was supposed to go."
Ross marched in the Fourth of July parade in Wasilla with Palin's parents and daughter Piper and was there at the picnic in Fairbanks when Palin handed over the state's reigns of power to incoming Gov. Sean Parnell.
Echoing some of DuJan's experiences as a vocal champion of Sarah Palin in one of America's most progressive, gay-friendly neighborhoods, Ross says she feels added pressure as a Palin supporter who happens to be African-American. But she is undeterred by other people's judgments.
"She is a big part of my life," Ross says. "I spend a lot of my time on Palin-centered things."
Ross and other prominent members of what might best be described as the "Sarah Palin community" reject the notion that they are blind followers in a political cult of personality. They are clearly sensitive to being painted with a label that they instead attribute to President Obama's biggest fans.
"I'm sure she's had some impact on it, but I wouldn't go as far to say she's changed my life, and I'm suddenly hearing music and the light from above is shining on me," says Josh Painter, who manages a Palin blog roll and edits Texas4Palin from his hometown of Bryan, Texas. "That's Barack Obama territory-he's 'The One.' Sarah Palin is just a woman we relate to."
Could Loyal Followers Become a Campaign Team?
Of all the pro-Palin blogs, Conservatives4Palin consistently has the biggest impact and reach. Its influence is evident in that it is the only online destination specifically devoted to supporting a potential 2012 candidate to make a recent list of the 100 most popular conservative web sites.
Most of Conservatives4Palin's contributors are not shy about their desire to see Palin run for president in 2012.
Palin herself long ago took notice of the site, giving it one of her patented shout-outs in her best selling book. She even scooped up two of its founding contributors last year and hired them to paid positions on her political staff.
"She's always said the best ideas don't come out of Washington, DC, and so there's no reason why she wouldn't follow that belief in choosing her staff," says Rebecca Mansour, one of the former Conservatives4Palin bloggers turned current Palin staffer.
Washington logic holds that since Palin has made few of the moves that traditional White House aspirants make in advance of a formal campaign, she is likely to stay on the sidelines in 2012.
And it's not just the mainstream media that has collectively decided that she probably won't run. Some of Palin's most prominent defenders, including Ann Coulter and Fred Barnes, have thrown cold water on the idea.
But Palin has never taken the traditional path to power, and it seems that a primary lesson she learned from her infighting with McCain staffers on the 2008 campaign trail was to value personal loyalty above traditional credentials.
"Think of how many volunteers she'll have--just imagine that," says Nicole Coulter (no relation to Ann Coulter), who expects to be one of them. "We might not be that competent or qualified or that smart, who knows, but we will work our butts off for her."
Thomas Chanteloup, a 45-year-old consultant for a software company consultant who blogs under the moniker "Sapwolf" on Conservatives4Palin, vows that he will quit his job to take up temporary residence in Iowa next year on Palin's behalf.
"When she's criticized, it's like that person is showing unfair criticism or vitriol against my mother or daughter," says Chanteloup, who says he has seen Palin speak in person about a dozen times and has shook her hand on about six occasions. "I take it personally."
Palin Courts Supporters Just Like They Support Her
The warm feelings between Palin and her staunchest backers flow both ways. On the 2008 campaign trail, Palin would frequently work overtime on rope lines, to the irritation of McCain campaign staffers who were trying to keep her on schedule, but to the delight of supportive traveling aides who saw her uncanny human touch as her strongest political attribute. She often spent hours on her campaign plane reading and responding to notes that supporters gave her and would occasionally relate to senior aides certain strategic concerns that voters had expressed to her face to face.
Palin is one politician who will never undervalue the importance of support and enthusiasm among her base, a factor that has time and again propelled insurgent candidates to victory in the Iowa caucuses.
Those who work for her have clearly gotten the memo, too.
Like Adrienne Ross, 72-year-old retired Air Force Colonel O.P. Ditch started his web site, Vets4Sarah, shortly after the 2008 campaign and has seen Palin speak six times.
When he and his wife attended a book signing event in Roanoke, Virginia, last November, Palin's staff made sure that they were the first to greet the governor when she entered the bookstore.
When Kevin DuJan and one of the other Hillbuzz contributors ventured to Washington, Illinois, to hear Palin speak last April, two members of Palin's staff made sure that they would have personal access to Palin.
For DuJan, it was the third chance he had gotten to meet her face to face, and this time, he wasn't going to let the opportunity go without imparting some political advice.
"I said, 'Don't let the RNC, don't let Michael Steele, and the media talk you out of it. Run. We think this is your calling,'" DuJan recalls.
He was particularly heartened by Palin's response.
"She just looked at me, and just like she does with a wink in her eye, and said , 'Don't you worry. I got their number.'"
Scott Conroy is a CBS News digital journalist, and is the co-author of "Sarah from Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar."
By Scott Conroy