Fairfax, Va. — If you’ve been to Barack Obama’s big public rallies, you know it’s not unusual to see lines of people stretched for block after block after block — seemingly mile after mile after mile — waiting to get in. That hasn’t usually been the case with John McCain’s rallies. Until now.
When McCain and running mate Sarah Palin appeared this morning at Van Dyck Park, in the city of Fairfax, Virginia, the people spilled out of the natural amphitheater, over the sides, out the back, and nearly all the way to the Old Lee Highway. The rally had originally been scheduled for Fairfax High School, but some school board members objected. With controversy brewing, the McCain campaign moved the event to the park. It was a good idea; the high school facility could handle 6,500 people, which would have been a huge crowd in pre-Palin days. But today, the school wouldn’t have been nearly big enough. After the rally, McCain officials told me 23,000 people had been there. Even if that estimate was a little high, it was still McCain’s biggest rally ever — and that, at mid-morning, on a weekday.
The message of the day, at least the word circulating among people in the crowd, was hope. This was a group of Republicans that — they’ll admit this now — had pretty much given up hope a few months ago. Now, with McCain’s selection of Palin as his running mate, things are different. “I think we really have a chance now,” a woman named Shirley, of Fairfax, told me. “It’s amazing.”
Everybody else seemed to think the same thing. I approached a woman named Carolyn, from Arlington, who told me she helped found the Independent Women’s Forum several years ago. “I am so proud of what she represents,” Carolyn said of Palin. “I wish my friend Barbara Olson were here to see this, because she would be thrilled. This is an incredible moment.”
I asked Carolyn whether she had been a strong supporter of McCain before the Palin announcement. “No, not so much,” she said. “A month ago, I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the race, but now I am. I was a rather disenchanted Republican, as were many of my friends.”
I asked why she had not been happy with McCain.
“I’d rather not go there,” she answered.
“For the obvious reasons?” I said.
“For the obvious reasons. I’m a Reagan conservative and he’s not.”
Carolyn’s friend, Colette, was standing nearby, nodding. “I’ve been a member of Feminists for Life for 25 years,” she told me. “I am the mother of seven, including twins — six girls — and I am just so proud today for all women. Sarah Palin is showing that a certain segment does not speak for women, that we have something else to say.”
With an audience primed like that, it almost didn’t matter what Palin said. When she appeared onstage, dressed in black, the crowd whooped it up with chants of SAR-AH! SAR-AH! SAR-AH! It wasn’t quite as loud as the O-BA-MA! chants two weeks ago at Denver’s Invesco Field, but it was pretty big. When Palin reached the microphone, she hit all of the main points from her speech at last week’s convention. And while her performance was a little rote, she seemed to put something extra into the section of her speech devoted to energy. She clearly knows a lot about the oil and gas business, and it shows when she speaks. Whatever the other hoopla about McCain’s choice of Palin, the fact is, in the midst of an election dominated by concerns about energy, he picked someone with real knowledge of energy. Not a bad idea.
As for McCain himself, he does appear to be jazzed by the Palin pandemonium that he has set off. When he began to speak, he got right into it: “My friends, the Commonwealth of Virginia is a battleground state, and we must win it,” he said. “We will win it.” When McCain is feeling good on the stump, there’s none of that weak, sing-song delivery that creeps into his big speeches. Here in Fairfax, he was making his points quickly and clearly.
And boy, is he right about the Virginia battleground. It appears that Obama has given up on some of the southern and western states he once thought he could win, but not Virginia. As McCain speaks, Obama is also in the state, pushing hard.
The RealClearPolitics average of polls here has McCain ahead by seven-tenths of one percent. And this area, Northern Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington, is Obama’s stronghold. A recent Survey USA poll, which showed McCain leading 49 percent to 47 percent statewide, found Obama leading 57-41 in Northern Virginia. To win, McCain will not only have to win in his own strong spots down south but also get his people out to vote to keep Obama’s lead down in these Washington suburbs.
And that depends entirely on enthusiasm, which, at least for the moment, depends a great deal on Sarah Palin. After the rally, I put a brief item in The Corner, remarking on the size of the crowd. I began to get a lot of emails from people who had also been there. Many of them confessed previous disenchantment with McCain, or the Republican party, or both. But no longer. “In the space of a week,” one woman wrote, “I went from vowing to disengage myself from the general election to volunteering for McCain and sitting in an hour of traffic just to hear Palin speak.” If she still feels that way on November 4, McCain just might win.