LEBANON, Ohio -- Janet Stefanopoulos drove 30 miles from Cincinnati to attend yesterday's presidential campaign rally here, but it wasn't the man at the top of the ticket that brought her out on a rainy Tuesday morning.
"I want to see Sarah Palin," said Stefanopoulos, a retired nurse and staunch Republican who had favored Fred Thompson in the primaries. "I was a lukewarm McCain [supporter] until he picked her. I mean, I would have voted for him, but now I'm fired up.... She is what I would like my children to be."
Similar sentiments were seen and heard all along Broadway Street, where a crowd of more than 5,000 filled the block between Mulberry and Main streets in front of the Golden Lamb Hotel, which boasts of having hosted 12 presidents, from John Quincy Adams to George W. Bush.
"This is what America is all about -- small town America," Palin told the cheering crowd, which had waited for hours in the rain that ended about 30 minutes before McCain and Palin arrived.
"It's going to be through your efforts and with your efforts that we're going to go to Washington and shake things up," the Alaska governor said, singing the praises of the man who has already shaken things up by putting her on the GOP ticket. "He has served America in good times and in bad and overcome great, great challenges....He's the only man who's got what it takes in this race to lead our country for the next four years."
The crowd applauded that line, just as they applauded nearly everything Palin said during her 14-minute speech, which was only slightly shorter than McCain's own speech. She was clearly a hit in this town of 17,000 in the Republican stronghold of Warren County.
President Bush beat John Kerry here by 44 points (72-28 percent) in 2004, and local GOP Chairman Donald R. Prince says Warren County delivered Bush's crucial margin of victory in Ohio. Neighboring Butler County disputes that honor, but Prince proudly says, "I got that straight from Karl Rove's mouth. He gave the credit to Warren County."
ABOUT MIDWAY BETWEEN Dayton and Cincinnati, Lebanon is the heart of the Republican heartland. Even in 2006, a historically bad year for the GOP -- especially in Ohio, where the party was tainted by the scandals of former Gov. Bob Taft and former Rep. Bob Ney -- Warren County delivered at least 69 percent for every Republican on the ballot, Prince says.
Generating another winning effort in 2008 will be made easier by McCain's choice of Palin as his running mate.
"You can see around here, this place is energized," Prince said amid the bustle at the county GOP headquarters after the rally. "We had over a hundred people out here this morning at 6:30, showing up to volunteer to help work this event. People have been coming out of the woodwork ever since Sarah Palin's name was announced....She's a person that has brought the Republican Party together in a huge way."
That effect was clear to see in the crowd that several times interrupted Palin's speech with chants of "Sarah! Sarah!" One merchandise vendor reported heavy sales of items featuring the names of both McCain and Palin, and said several people had asked for items with only Palin's name. Those weren't in stock, but she said she was planning to pass along to her boss the suggestion of stocking Palin merchandise.
Many of those in attendance brought their own hand-lettered signs and T-shirts, including Felicia Jaynes, 19, who wore a homemade glitter-spangled "McCain Palin '08" shirt. "We liked McCain before, but after he picked Palin, we were pumped," said Jaynes, who attended the rally with her two younger sisters and a friend, all wearing similar T-shirts.
Nearby, 17-year-old Meghan Ellis of Maineville held aloft a poster declaring, "Sarah Palin U R My Role Model." Her mother, Tracy Ellis, called Palin a "perfect" choice as vice president. "We're so excited about her."
That excitement will be key to GOP prospects in this crucial swing state -- no Republican has ever been elected president without carrying Ohio. "This is a state we must win and we will win," said McCain, who has visited Ohio 18 times since April.
WINNING THIS STATE will require Republicans to outperform the vaunted grassroots organizing machinery of Barack Obama's campaign, which has opened more than 40 offices throughout the state. The Warren County GOP chairman isn't intimidated by the Democratic operation.
"We'll match it and better it. We always do," Prince says. "We do it with volunteers. We don't pay staff -- and I think that's their weakness....They go out and hire a bunch of college students. I don't think they get the performance that we do out of our people."
Many of those people are pro-life Christians, and Prince says it's a "big plus" that McCain chose as his running mate a woman whom evangelicals embrace as one of their own.
As the morning gloom gave way to fair skies yesterday, Prince's biggest concern was the most recent Rasmussen poll showing the McCain-Palin ticket ahead by 7 points in the Buckeye State.
"I'm actually kind of more comfortable being the underdog. We're not used to being ahead in September. But this," he said, gesturing toward the volunteers crowding around the front desk of the county GOP headquarters. "If we can keep it rolling, we'll take it right on in. We certainly have the momentum now."
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