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She starts making U.S. rounds

Times Staff Writer

The morning after her debut on the national stage, Sarah Palin, the new running mate for presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, greeted about 20 people Saturday at Tom’s Diner, a local landmark in the city’s South Side neighborhood.

Asked how she enjoyed her first day in the international spotlight, Palin replied, “It’s great to see another part of the country.”

She will see more today. Palin and McCain will rush to Jackson, Miss., for a briefing on emergency preparations for Hurricane Gustav. The monster storm is predicted to slam into the Gulf Coast as early as Monday.

Getting Palin up to speed on the rest of America, as well as global hot spots, may be as critical to Republican hopes of holding onto the White House this fall as the need to make voters feel comfortable with the little-known, little-traveled first-term governor of Alaska.

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McCain chose Palin after meeting her twice: a 15-minute conversation in February, and then for about two hours on Thursday morning, when he offered her the job. Aides say they grew more acquainted during a six-hour bus ride Friday afternoon from Dayton, Ohio, to Pittsburgh. They huddled again together and with aides for much of Saturday.

After the initial surprise wore off, Republican leaders rallied round McCain’s choice. Frank Donatelli, deputy chairman of the Republican convention, told reporters in a conference call that the party was “on fire” after the announcement.

The McCain campaign received about $4.7 million in online donations in the 12 hours after the Friday-morning announcement, its largest one-day total, said Steve Schmidt, McCain’s chief strategist. The campaign released a letter from Palin saying she was “honored to make history” and seeking additional contributions.

Palin’s first day as presumptive vice presidential nominee included a frank interview with People magazine in which Palin wore “ruby-red platform heels with a pink French-style pedicure”; disclosed that she doesn’t sleep much at night because she’s usually alternating between a Blackberry for work and a breast pump for her infant son, Trig; and said her favorite meal at home is moose burgers and caribou sausages.

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She’s “not wired normal,” her husband, Todd, told the magazine.

Palin’s family added a festive air to McCain’s campaign plane. When they boarded, Willow, 14, carried Trig wrapped in a blanket with his bottle. Bristol, 17, carried a car seat. And 7-year-old Piper waved enthusiastically to one and all. Pizza was served inside.

Aides said Palin and her family would fly home to Juneau tonight after an outdoor event with McCain in St. Louis. They are to fly back early this week for the Republican National Convention in St. Paul., Minn., where she is scheduled to speak Wednesday.

Democrats questioned whether Palin was prepared to take over if McCain -- who is 72 and in the past has had the most serious form of skin cancer -- were suddenly unable to govern. “The truth is no one knows whether Sarah Palin could be a competent president, which shows how highly political and potentially reckless this choice is,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York.

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Palin’s political challenge was on clear view Saturday afternoon when McCain and Palin made their second public appearance. The campaign staged a raucous rally before about 7,500 people who filled the stands and infield of a baseball field in Washington, a suburb of Pittsburgh. When McCain’s bus drove down the third base line and deposited the candidates into blinding sunlight at home plate, the pumped-up crowd erupted in cheers befitting a rock star. “Sarah! Sarah!” some shouted.

But Palin’s speech -- the same one she gave Friday -- was less well received. Because of either ballpark loudspeakers or just nerves, her voice cracked and at times rose to an uncomfortably high pitch. Midway through her talk, some families could be seen leaving the park.

And Palin’s vow to “honor the effort” of Hillary Rodham Clinton -- a direct appeal to women and other disaffected Democrats in this blue-collar area -- appeared to backfire. The New York senator’s name drew booing from the stands and infield so loud that it drowned Palin out.

As on Friday, neither Palin nor McCain even mentioned their Democratic opponents, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and his running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden.

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For his part, the Democratic presidential nominee would not be drawn into a discussion Saturday about Palin’s qualifications for higher office.

“I think that Gov. Palin is a compelling person,” Obama said, talking briefly with reporters after a rally in Dublin, Ohio. “She’s got a great story. She seems to have a wonderful, engaging personality. And the fact that she got elected governor of Alaska I think shows she’s got real political skills.”

He continued: “I think that ultimately, she subscribes to the same economic theories and foreign policy theories as John McCain does. I think those are the wrong theories for this country. I don’t think that John McCain is offering something that can help middle-class families on paying the bills, sending their kids to college and getting healthcare. And I don’t get the sense that the addition of the vice presidential choice is going to change that.”

Before being asked about Palin, Obama said he had spoken with officials in Louisiana about Hurricane Gustav and urged people to evacuate.

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“Obviously this is a very serious situation. . . . It is a potentially very powerful storm,” Obama said, saying he wanted to convey the message: “Take the evacuation seriously.”

He said he had no plans to go to the Gulf Coast as the storm approached. He said his staff would continue to monitor the situation. “Sometimes we can be a distraction.”

--

bob.drogin@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Noam N. Levey, with the Obama campaign in Dublin, Ohio, contributed to this report.


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