September 11, 2008 3:00 am
People started queuing before 7am for a front row spot at John McCain's campaign rally in Lebanon, Ohio, this week.
By the time the senator appeared with Sarah Palin, his running mate, three hours later, more than 5,000 people had crammed into the town centre, with hundreds more locked outside the security cordon.
Similar scenes have greeted the Republican presidential ticket at events across the country this week, marking the first time that Mr McCain has rivalled Barack Obama for pulling power.
Scanning the crowd in Lebanon, a commuter town of 17,000 people outside Cincinnati, the catalyst for surging Republican enthusiasm was obvious.
Home-made placards emblazoned with slogans such as "Working Moms for Palin" outnumbered those referring to Mr McCain, and chants of "Sarah, Sarah" filled the air.
"I was always going to vote McCain, but I wasn't looking forward to it," said Dixie Bruggeman, a retired car plant worker, wearing a Stars and Stripes blouse. "When I heard about Sarah Palin, I got excited about the election for the first time and wrote a $100 cheque to the GOP [Republican party]."
Almost every Republican questioned gave a similar account of the electrifying effect that Mr McCain's choice for vice-president had on their attitude to November's poll.
It was conservative strongholds such as Lebanon that helped deliver George W. Bush the wafer-thin victory in Ohio that kept him in the White House four years ago. The state looks set to play a pivotal role again this year and Mr McCain is relying on those same rural and suburban districts to offset Mr Obama's strength in urban and industrialised areas.
A few months ago, Lebanon and surrounding Warren County were popular destinations for reporters researching stories about how Mr McCain was struggling to rally a demoralised and fractured conservative base. But Mary Jo Kubicki, a volunteer at the Republican party headquarters in Lebanon, says that story has now reversed. "The phone hasn't stopped ringing since Palin was picked," she says. "We've had a rush of volunteers and we're out of McCain yard signs."
Part of the reason Ms Palin stirs such passion lies in her conservative record on touchstone issues such as abortion and taxes, helping reassure Republicans who doubt Mr McCain's commitment to such causes.
Plenty of other potential running mates, however, could have brought similar conservative credentials without generating nearly as much excitement. What sets Mrs Palin apart is a background and personality that voters have instantly identified with, even though her life as governor of Alaska and mother-of-five is anything but ordinary.
"She validates me and my lifestyle," said Teri Norris, a mother of three, holding her four year-old daughter and a bag of cookies at the Lebanon rally.
Ms Palin was chosen as much to help Mr McCain appeal to women and blue-collar independent voters as she was to shore up the -conservative base, and polls suggest the strategy is working.
Before the party conventions, an ABC/Washington Post poll showed Mr Obama with a 50-42 per cent lead among white women. This week, the same poll found white women favouring Mr McCain by 53-41 per cent - a 10-point swing.
Support for Mr McCain among independents, meanwhile, has bounced from 40 per cent before the conventions to 52 per cent this week, according to Gallup - the first time he has opened a clear lead over Mr Obama among this critical group.
Increased backing from women and independents is at the heart of Mr McCain's broader bounce in the polls since the Republican convention, with surveys giving him an average two-point cushion over Mr Obama.
Democrats have tried to stem Republican gains among women - and particularly among Hillary Clinton's former supporters - by highlighting Ms Palin's staunch opposition to abortion, which cuts against feminist orthodoxy.
But Joyce Bursten, a McCain supporter, dismissed the idea that abortion was a "make or break issue" for most women.
"I'm pro-choice but I respect the pro-life point of view," she said. "I'm not going to let that one issue cloud everything else."
Ms Palin's stump speech in Lebanon was mostly recycled punch lines from her address to the Republican convention last week, and the delivery was somewhat robotic. But she could have read from the Cincinnati phone directory and the crowd would still have given her a rapturous reception.
"This is what America is all about," she said, speaking from a stage opposite flat-roofed, red-brick buildings of the kind found along small-town main streets across the US. "We're going to Washington and we're going to shake things up."
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