A new muse for the McCain campaign

Times Staff Writer

After the Republican reception for Sarah Palin this last week, it seemed reasonable to wonder how John McCain was ever going to campaign on his own again.

The campaign’s effort to present the Republican ticket as a team of mavericks ready to shake up Washington has loosened up McCain on the stump and banished the staid image of the dignified elder statesman.

He is a feistier candidate with Palin at his side. With his blue shirt sleeves rolled up, he punches out his lines with gusto, railing against the “old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd,” stabbing the air with his Sharpie marker and thumping the lectern with his fist.

Aides acknowledge that Palin’s presence has turned McCain into a sharper campaigner, and that is perhaps why she abandoned her plans to return to Alaska this weekend. Instead, she will accompany him for two more days than planned this week.

Cognizant of the splash their rallies have made on television, the campaign scrapped plans for a visit to a laboratory in Columbia, Mo., today, choosing instead to rally in Lee’s Summit, Mo.


And McCain, who once struggled to match the ability of his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, to draw large crowds, is now being flocked by throngs of supporters.

On the GOP ticket’s first post-convention stop, supporters jammed the streets of Cedarburg, Wis. And in Sterling Heights, Mich., there were more than 7,000 people chanting -- not McCain’s name, but “Sa-rah! Sa-rah!”

Much the same happened later that night in Albuquerque, where a crowd of 6,000 appeared. Dustin Spilsbury, whose 3-year-old daughter was hoisted on his shoulders, summed up his Sarah Palin fever as he watched her work the rope line.

“I’m ready for her for president -- I wish it was switched,” said Spilsbury, a 30-year-old auto glass technician who lives with his wife, Shannon, and their two children in nearby Rio Rancho, N.M. “We love her. I just wasn’t going to vote at all, [but] she sold us both.”

“She does more things than we do -- the hunting and the fishing, the outdoors stuff, the kids and the bills. She understands us,” he said.

Nearby, Kim Barnard, a pastor and 36-year-old mother of three, said choosing Palin “was the best thing [McCain] ever could have done.”

“We know a lot of people who were not going to vote for McCain because he’s old,” Barnard said. “She brings a fresh breath to the Republican Party; she just kind of energized the entire campaign. . . . She seems very tenacious -- she’s going to go get it and I really love that about her.”

If McCain feels eclipsed by the star wattage of his running mate, it certainly doesn’t show.

“He doesn’t care,” said Steve Duprey, McCain’s frequent traveling companion and the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “If you took a hundred members of the Senate, 92 of them would have issues with it. John McCain doesn’t care about that kind of thing.”

In fact, the Arizona senator sounded downright giddy when he introduced her in Cedarburg. “Isn’t this the most marvelous running mate in the history of this nation?” he said.

“He’s pumped,” McCain’s longtime aide Mark Salter conceded after watching McCain and Palin in Albuquerque. “He’s feeding off the crowds -- you’ve got these huge crowds, they’re wildly enthusiastic and that’s going to pump up any speaker. He loves campaigning with her.”

The duo, who had scarcely met before becoming a team, have begun forging a friendship helped by their irreverent senses of humor, aides say.

The McCains and the Palins often sit together on the back of McCain’s campaign bus. McCain is said to be fascinated by stories of caribou hunting, working the oil fields of Alaska’s North Slope, snow-machining, dog sled races -- and he finds humor in the shock value of his running mate’s extracurricular activities.

“When somebody new is on the bus, he’ll say -- ‘You know Gov. Palin here hunts, shoots, dresses, freezes, cooks her own meat,’ ” Duprey said. “He thinks it’s a hoot.”

McCain also gained new respect for Palin in the harsh scrutiny that followed her revelation last Monday that her unwed teenage daughter is pregnant, Duprey said.

But at times, McCain’s and Palin’s public pas de deux has looked awkward.

When they hugged on stage at their first rally, they seemed like near-strangers who would have been more comfortable with a handshake. And when McCain stands next to her on stage, he often peers over her shoulder at her notes.

They lack the easy camaraderie shared by Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden -- they sometimes chuckle over side conversations as they wave to the crowd.

Palin has proved to be a confident and commanding presence in this tightly controlled environment. Though she nods and applauds attentively when he speaks, Palin does not gaze deferentially at McCain. Her eyes often wander over the supporters in the audience -- aware, perhaps, that many of them are there to see her.

In this honeymoon phase, many voters admit they know little about Palin’s positions and background. But one sign in Albuquerque may have summed it up for Republican stalwarts: “Sarah -- you had us at hello.”