She's the Star the GOP Hitched Its Bandwagon To

Admirers at the feet of Sarah Palin. "It's a different kind of celebrity," said one. "She's doing her thing and people are flocking to her."
Admirers at the feet of Sarah Palin. "It's a different kind of celebrity," said one. "She's doing her thing and people are flocking to her." (Jason Reed - Reuters)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008; Page C01

After weeks of mocking Barack Obama as a famous man and that's all, the McCain campaign now has its own celebrity to promote: Sarah Palin, the sudden sensation.

Mad love from the public is always welcome, in politics and entertainment, but the McCain campaign seems to have come to this notion slowly. With the hordes gravitating to Obama in record numbers, Rick Davis, John McCain's campaign manager, penned a memo on July 30 that said: "Barack Obama is the biggest celebrity in the world, comparable to Tom Cruise, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton."

The memo took aim at his gym habits, and the protein bars he eats, and the organic tea he drinks, and went on to say his celebrity status had "fueled a certain arrogance." Concerned that Obama was out of reach, flying at an altitude of 50,000 feet or something, the McCain campaign was determined to bring him down closer to where they could battle him. The campaign ran an ad trying to tie him to Britney and Paris, first-name celebrities known for getting in mindless trouble or doing nothing. The ad's kicker: "But is he ready to lead?"

So much for the dissing of celebrity. Now it's Sarah Palin, a former small-town mayor with 21 months as governor, who is being followed like a rock star. And McCain aides love it. "Entertainment Tonight" was among the media contingents traveling to Alaska with her. She's on the cover of People, Us Weekly and OK! magazines. Her overall favorable rating is about even with McCain and Obama at 58 percent, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. And some demographic segments of the population swoon over her even more. Among white women with children at home, her approval rating is 80 percent. Women have been coming into their local eyewear shops asking for those Palin glasses with the silver temple pieces.

And so it was that people pressed against each other to catch a glimpse of her, even from afar, at yesterday's McCain-Palin rally at Van Dyck Park in Fairfax City, an elaborate showcase for the Alaska governor's own brand of instant celebrity. It wasn't exactly Obama in Berlin or at Denver's Invesco Field, where the Democratic nominee drew unbelievable crowds and the contempt of his Republican opponents for being, well, extremely popular. But it was, by the yardstick of the Republican quest for the presidency, something extraordinary to see. So much so, that the McCain campaign hierarchy is now considering keeping the nominee and her running mate stumping together as a tag team.

The lines to gaze upon Sarah Palin formed early and stretched for more than a mile along Old Lee Highway, as thousands and thousands made their way to the park's grassy hills, and chanted over and over: "Sarah! Sarah! Sarah!" Parents ditched work, and kids skipped school, and the souvenir hawkers did a brisk business working the lines with buttons like: "Hot chicks vote Republican." Many came by foot, many others by shuttle bus from a nearby mall. The size of the crowd was difficult to determine. Police and the McCain campaign estimated it at 23,000.

Celebrity is its own momentum. "It was so cool watching all the people get in line," said Vicki Hoffman, an artist who lives in the neighborhood. "It was like Woodstock."

Those who came were there to take their own measure of the collage of Palin images they had embraced from a distance: hockey mom, field dresser of moose, grandmother-in-waiting, champion of social conservatives, battler of good ol' boy Republicans, historic running mate. Here was a composite version of stardom they could get behind.

"She exemplifies what a genuine feminist is," said Elizabeth Hauris, who owns a company that manufactures cloth diapers. "She's pro-life, pro-family, nurses her son, carries him in a sling, which epitomizes the idea of close attachment." Hauris said she has seen photos of Palin signing bills, baby Trig in tow. "And that thrills me."

Celebrity does not require any special skill -- except to be. Who can say with precision what it is that inspires some to squeal and moan and be moved beyond rationality? Like the man in the camouflage raincoat who stood on the hill with his homemade sign: "Sarah! Will You Marry Me!"

Ann Norman, 21, and her University of Virginia "girls" drove from Charlottesville to Fairfax on Tuesday night, stayed with her cousin, woke up at 4:30 a.m. -- the rally didn't start until 10 -- and were first in line at 5. "We heard there were thousands of people turned away, and we were determined that would not be us," said Norman, a junior.

"We're skipping all of our classes," said fellow junior Lucy Partain. "Don't tell my parents."

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