TAMPA -- It's storm season in Florida, and elsewhere around the Gulf of Mexico, as the very bad weekend news out of Texas underlines. But local Republicans are more focused on Hurricane Sarah than they are on the blow-dried meteorologists and perky weather-babes who come on at six and 11 to speak of storms and rumors of storms.
As most know by now, the choice of Sarah Palin for VP has injected turbo excitement into a formerly charisma-challenged McCain campaign that almost certainly would have been DOA Nov. 4 without the considerable boost she's provided. Floridians are as susceptible to Palin's charms, her very real conservative convictions, and her leadership skills as folks everywhere seem to be.
I shared a cup of kindness (maybe two) after work Thursday with the Tampa Downtown Republicans, a group of a few dozen young to middling professionals (not to mention the odd writer or retired sergeant major), and the buzz, no surprise, was all about Sarah. I've never seen this bunch so animated or optimistic.
The airy mood made much of the conversation fanciful. One comely real estate professional, with a glass of house cabernet in her hand, suggested that one presidential debate be replaced by a one-on-one game of hoops between Sarah and Obama. "She'd hip-check him," was the approving response to laughter all around. "He'd be a changed man," another Sarah fan contributed.
OK, pretty giddy stuff, and not be taken seriously. But it's the first time this bunch has had any fun with this election cycle since it began in the misty past.
A more reasonable conclusion, arrived at during less febrile moments, was the prediction that after the vice-presidential debate on October 8, Joe Biden will never again consider the winsome Sarah as just another pretty face. This gal has a fastball.
THE ENTHUSIASM IS NOT JUST among Republicans. Greg Truax, co-chair of the McCain campaign in Hillsborough County (Tampa), says after the Palin speech at the Republican convention he's had not only more Republicans but also independents and even some Democrats volunteer to be volunteers in the local McCain campaign. The same thing is happening across Florida and the Southeast, though for reasons known only to themselves, folks at McCain's Southeast regional headquarters don't wish to be quoted by name saying this. "Tremendous," was all Mat Diaz, communications director for McCain Southeast, would say on the record.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Truax, a veteran of many campaigns. "We're energized and fired up. And it's mainly the Palin effect."
The other Hillsborough McCain co-chair, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, said, "Sarah is bigger than a hurricane; she's a tsunami. Women who come to the commission meetings who I know are antagonistic toward Bush tell me they love Sarah. She's one of us, they say."
Now you'd expect McCain campaign guys to say stuff like this, but this testimony (almost sounds like Baptist witnessing) comports with some pretty dramatic polling results. Gallup is reporting that support for McCain among independents nationally went from 40 percent at the end of August to 52 percent after the convention. In another category called "pure independents," those who report they lean neither liberal nor conservative (the radical middle?), McCain's support went from 20 percent before the convention to 39 percent after.
National polls are showing McCain with a small national lead for the first time. He's gained ground in the so-called battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico. Quinnipiac showed McCain with a 50-43 lead over Obama in Florida on Sept. 11, with large numbers of white female voters making a bee-line to the McCain side. McCain now leads Obama 47-45 among women in Florida. The first time Obama has trailed among women here.
The Palin factor has to be the major part of this change. McCain's acceptance speech was pretty good, especially the rousing "stand-up-and-kick-some-butt" peroration. (Some viewers were hearing McCain's moving personal story for the first time.) And, of course, an aggressive, smart-alacky, New Yawk cheeky speech from Rudy Giuliani is always fun. But no one with a pulse was moved to man the ramparts by hearing from orators like former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge and Florida U.S. Senator Mel Martinez. (I can't help but believe convention doors were locked from the outside while these two spoke -- just the fact that most delegates were awake at the end of these two speeches shows how tough and focused Republicans can be.) It had to be Sarah who primed the pump.
OF COURSE, DEMOCRATS and cultural lefties, since the Sarah phenomenon exploded on the national scene, have spent a good deal of time either on their fainting couches or beavering away passing on Sarah groin shots from the liberal blogosphere. The "Slime Sarah" movement is as active in Florida as it has been across the country. But it hasn't gotten any more traction here than it has elsewhere.
Folks who didn't care a fig about the "Troopergate" story when it had to do with Bill Clinton are trying to pump some life into a Sarah Palin Troopergate. Otherwise bright people are trying to whoop up brain-dead stories about Sarah Palin such as Sarah the book burner, complete with an attached list of books Palin allegedly tried to have removed from the Wasilla Library, some of which were published years after Palin was mayor there.
Nothing is too preposterous for a desperate left, horrified that a strong and successful woman who has chosen a large family, belongs to the NRA, and sees the global warming scam as the crock that it is, is wildly popular among walking around Americans. "Hey, did you hear? She drinks the blood of flies for breakfast, and snatches food from the mouths of hungry widows and orphans."
McCain will appear at the Tampa Convention Center Tuesday morning. The McCain campaign here is having no trouble getting up a crowd to fill the center. Many among the Thursday night group will be there Tuesday. But there's palpable disappointment among them that Sarah won't be there too.
Could this be love?
Political sophisticates here, and across the country, are asking if the Palin phenomena is personal or political. Are voters attracted to Palin because of her positions on issues, her political skills, her courage in pushing reforms and going after political bad actors, and her leadership ability? Or are voters attracted to Palin by her good looks, her stage skills, her beautiful family, and her compelling personal story? Around here, seven weeks from the election, the answer to both of these questions appears to be yes.
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