ST. PAUL – The selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate has electrified conservative activists, providing a boost of energy to the GOP nominee-in-waiting from a key constituency that had been previously had been lukewarm – at best – about him.
By tapping the anti-abortion and pro-gun Alaska governor just ahead of his convention, which is set to start here Monday, McCain hasn’t just won approval from a skeptical Republican base – he’s ignited a wave of elation and emotion that has led some grassroots activists to weep with joy.
Serious questions remain about McCain’s pick – exactly how much he knows about her and her positions, past and present, on key issues. But for the worker bee core of the party that is essential to any Republican victory there are no doubts.
“I woke up and my email was just going crazy,” said Charmaine Yoest, head of the legislative arm of Americans United for Life and a former top official in Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign. “And then when it was announced — it was like you couldn’t breathe.”
The media elite – as well as elite members of the GOP consulting community – have all but mocked Palin as a former smalltown mayor with zero Washington experience. But that view of her totally misses the cultural resonance she carries to crucial Republican power centers and could not be more at odds with the jubilation felt among true believers that one of their own is on the ticket.
Palin, say conservative activists, has instantly changed how they feel about McCain’s campaign and spurred them to go to work for the Republican ticket.
First, though, they’re expressing their newfound fondness for McCain with their checkbooks. Since tapping Palin, the campaign has raised nearly $7 million online, according to McCain aides.
Most importantly for McCain, the two constituencies who are most energized by Palin just happen to be the twin grassroots pillars of the GOP: anti-abortion activists and pro-Second Amendment enthusiasts and sportsmen. Without these two camps making phone calls, stuffing envelopes and knocking on doors, Republican presidential candidates would severely lack for volunteers. They are critical to the health of the conservative coalition that has dominated Republican politics for a generation.
Republicans say the primary source for the passion can be found in Palin’s example and authenticity.
Not only is the 44-year-old governor opposed to abortion rights — but she carried and gave birth to a child with Down syndrome earlier this year, a profound and powerful motivating force to both opponents of abortion rights and the parents and relatives of special needs children.
And not only is she a supporter of the right to bear arms – but she’s a life member of the NRA and an avid hunter and fishermen whose gubernatorial office couch is adorned with a massive Grizzly bear pelt.
“She’s lived it!” exulted Yoest “It’s so satisfying as a conservative woman. When she walked out on that stage there was just this moment. It was really emotional for a lot of us.”
After hearing the news Yoest, who was in St. Paul preparing for the convention, said she and other Republican women here “were grabbing each other and jumping up and down.”
Steve Duprey, a former New Hampshire GOP chairman and top McCain backer who hails from the moderate wing of the party, was also in the Twin Cities when the news broke.
“I was in the Rules Committee with about 150 people in the room. They had TVs set up and we took a break to watch the announcement. For a second after she came out, it was silent. Then there was a gasp and everybody stood up and started cheering and clapping. We stayed standing the whole speech.”
After Palin finished, he said, the emotion set in.
“There were 10 or 12 women, party stalwarts, in tears, using napkins and handkerchiefs.”
Part of the reason for the joy is what President Bush once called, in another context, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Social conservatives just didn’t expect one of their own to be tapped and were actually bracing themselves for the selection of a supporter of abortion rights.
“There is an electricity going through the social conservative crowd right now; it’s unbelievable,” said James Muffett, head of Michigan’s Citizens for Traditional Values, who had met with McCain in the weeks leading up to his selection of a running mate. “Especially given all the set-ups and head fakes - it’s amazing. A lot of people were sure he was going to show his more moderate colors.”
Muffett said the effect on his conservative comrades-in-arms has been immediate and visceral.
"My wife and I watched an MSNBC special on her last night," he said. "My wife knew nothing about this woman. But she was in tears listening to her articulate the views she had."
Since the pick, Muffett said, he’s gotten “dozens of emails and the phones have been ringing off the hook” from other social conservatives who had assumed McCain would spurn them.
"They were taunting me, saying ‘McCain’s going to disappoint you,'" he said of the sentiment before the pick.
"Boy, what kind of prayers have you been saying for McCain?" he said with a chuckle about the question asked on one phone call. “He went and chose a Pentecostal for his running mate!”
The adoration goes beyond Christian conservatives.
Sportsmen are also overjoyed at the addition of one of their own, and can’t get enough of video and pictures showing Paliln firing a weapon.
“She's one of us,” wrote Michael Bane, a prominent Colorado-based gun enthusiast who has a show on the Outdoor Channel, on his blog. “FINALLY, we can get 100% behind the Republican ticket ... change we can believe in!”
“You know I've had my problems with McCain, but he has reached out a hand to us both at the NRA Annual Meeting [earlier this year] and with the amazing selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate,” Bane added.
And then there is the contrast: “While [Barack Obama] wants to ban AR-15s; Palin shoots AR-15s, and apparently pretty well.”
“Every shooter, every hunter, every gun owner, every competitor needs to understand that it is time to, in the words of Bruce Willis, ‘cowboy the 'f...' up.’ ”
Chris Cox, the top political aide at the NRA, suggested that his job just got a whole lot easier, not just with a pro-gun Republican vice-presidential nominee but a Democratic number two – Delaware Sen. Joe Biden - who is anathema to the Second Amendment community
“We’ll be able to have some fun contrasting not just McCain and Obama, but Biden and Palin,” said Cox, whose organization is giving "I'm a Bitter Gun Owner and I Vote!" signs and t-shirts to its members. “She’s great on our issues and [Biden’s] been terrible for 35 years.”
Her image as a pistol-packin’-mamma could prove especially key in the hunter-filled Rust Belt, said Paul Erhardt, a longtime political strategist who specializes on gun issues.
“Palin could play strong in the sporting states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania depending on how they use her,” he said. “Most pundits will underestimate her appeal in these key areas because they don't know her and they are unfamiliar with the sporting scene. But among sportsmen, authenticity counts and Palin's got that and then some.”
Palin also reassures those concerned about McCain's judgment on judges. Said Gary Marx, head of the Judicial Confirmation Network and a former Mitt Romney aide: "I can tell you that this pick tells millions in the base of the party that they can trust McCain. More specifically that they can trust him with Supreme Court picks and other key appoitments"
The sense of rejuvenation is not just limited to party activists, though. Conservative elites, among the most disdainful of McCain, are also coming around.
James Dobson, long a McCain skeptic, said after the announcement Friday that he’d support Palin.
And he’s not alone.
“I’ve talked to two prominent social conservative leaders in the past 24 hours who told me they had previously not planned to attend the convention, but were now coming to Minneapolis after the Palin pick,” wrote Ralph Reed, a Christian conservative leader who has tangled with McCain, in an email. “One scrambled to find a hotel room and is coming tomorrow; the other re-arranged his schedule and is flying in Wednesday. I got a call this afternoon from an evangelical business leader who told me he was contacting the McCain campaign and offering to host a fundraiser with his friends for McCain (sans the candidate) before the Thursday deadline [when McCain shifts to the public financing system]. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a veep pick energize the grassroots like this.”
Rush Limbaugh, who exulted on the air this week, summed up the response he’s gotten from his loyal listeners: “Home f***ing run.”
“Palin=Guns, Babies, Jesus,” he wrote in an email. “Contrast that to Obama's bitter clingers. Obama just lost blue-collar, white Democratic voters in Pennsylvania and other states.”
And, he said, the line that the pick was aimed at picking off Democratic women who backed Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn’t get it right.
“[The] choice is to shore up the conservative, pro-drilling base,” he said. “This is an aggressive, on-offense pick, not a defensive pick.”
The pick caps off what has been a turbulent few weeks for conservative Republicans.
Muffett, who was talking on his cell phone from a church outing at Ohio’s Cedar Point amusement park, likened McCain’s campaign to the world-record 17 roller coasters that dot the park on the banks of Lake Erie.
“Oh my gosh, holy moly,” he said. “He floated the pro-abortion running mate, then there was his performance at the Saddleback debate, and then you had the Lieberman headfake and now this.”
“Up and down, up and down.”
For now, though, at least as it relates to the long-mistrustful conservatives he’ll need energized to win, McCain is sky-high.
“Now that he has so thoroughly exceeded their expectations for his candidacy (first with his stellar performance at the Saddleback Showdown, now with his selection of his running mate), social conservatives are finally putting on their cleats and getting on to the field,” said Reed. “It’s really quite remarkable, and something that no one would have guessed would happen even three months ago.”
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