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For the Republican Base, Palin Pick Is Energizing

On Feb. 12 in Alexandria, John McCain celebrated his victory in Virginia's Republican primary. Turnout among conservatives in Hampton Roads could be crucial in the swing state in November.
On Feb. 12 in Alexandria, John McCain celebrated his victory in Virginia's Republican primary. Turnout among conservatives in Hampton Roads could be crucial in the swing state in November. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 2008

NORFOLK -- Bill and Sandra Goode were so worried that John McCain might pick a running mate who favored abortion rights that Bill called McCain's presidential campaign headquarters to warn against it. They prayed. And when the Republican senator picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom they had barely heard of but knew to be staunchly antiabortion, Sandra Goode said, "we knew our prayers had been answered."

The Goodes would have voted for McCain no matter what, but Palin lifted them to a new level of motivation. They called the volunteer McCain representative in their town of Surry, Va., offering any help they could.

"She's a real catalyst," said Bill Goode, 63, an electrician. "Sarah is the epitome of pro-life. You can tell how effective she is by the reaction she got. If she was someone who wasn't viewed as a threat to the abortionists, there wouldn't have been a response equivalent to this."

Palin's debut has invigorated the Republican base here in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, a battleground area in a top swing state, and one where GOP turnout depends heavily on evangelical Christians such as the Goodes, along with the many military families clustered around the Norfolk and Portsmouth bases.

The reaction has been remarkably instantaneous, with socially conservative voters who had barely heard of Palin electrified by the few facts they quickly learned: her longtime membership in the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination; her large family; her opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest; her decision to carry to term her fifth child after learning he has Down syndrome; and her belief in teaching creationism alongside evolution in public schools.

But the question facing Republicans here is whether their organization can match, and fully capitalize on, the enthusiasm provided by Palin with just two months left until Election Day. As Obama targets Virginia and its 13 electoral votes -- President Bush won the state with 54 percent of the vote in 2004 -- he has built a formidable organization, with 41 offices to McCain's nine, dozens more paid staff members, and far more time spent manning phone banks and going door to door.

GOP activists report with relief that socially conservative voters who might have stayed home on Election Day say they will turn out now, while others say they will campaign more actively for the ticket. Among those coming out of the woodwork, activists say, are some who have not been active before, such as parents of special-needs children who feel a bond with Palin. The reaction was slower for less-religious Republicans, including ones with military backgrounds who wondered about Palin's qualifications, but after her tough convention speech, many of them are also energized.

"Hearing her pro-life stance, her conservative values, her family orientation -- it has really resonated with the proletariat and caused people to say: 'Hey, I'm going to get involved here. This is someone I can relate with; this is someone that can win,' " said David Willis, an electrical engineer and GOP activist in Smithfield. "I don't want to imply the party's been limping this whole time, but with Sarah, McCain really emboldened it."

Interviews with Republican activists in the Hampton Roads area confirmed that the party is lagging in the organizational department, though most expressed confidence that, with the spark of Palin's debut, they have time to catch up. The deficit lies partly in the parties' differing approaches: Republicans generally invest less in get-out-the-vote efforts than Democrats, because they say they know who their base voters are and they know that those voters need less encouragement.

But this year the contrast is particularly sharp. Unlike Bush's 2004 campaign, which focused heavily on turnout operations, McCain has devoted most of his resources to ads, while Obama has emphasized organization as perhaps no Democrat before him.

Obama has made big gains in registering new Virginia voters, with 49,000 additions in August, 36 percent more than signed up in July. The campaign says it held 1,000 house parties in Virginia to watch Obama's convention speech, with many of the 13,000 attending also canvassing over the Labor Day weekend.

Because Virginia has been so reliably Republican in presidential elections for decades, Republicans here -- unlike in perennial swing states such as Ohio -- are unaccustomed to having to exert all that much effort. And until Palin burst on the scene, Republicans here said there just was not a lot of the energy needed to fuel a grass-roots operation, because of Bush's decline in popularity, lingering ambivalence about McCain and demoralization from recent GOP losses in the state.


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