Every mention of Sarah Palin produced a banner-waving roar from the crowd of over 20,000 in T. R. Hughes Stadium in O'Fallon, Missouri, on blistering hot Sunday afternoon. While McCain is on top of the ticket, Palin is the draw. A woman from Dent County--about 3 hours from O'Fallon--made the drive to see McCain and Palin in person. She was thrilled to get hold of a "McCain-Palin" banner after several stacks of the banners didn't make it to her. "I work at the Republican Headquarters in Dent county," she told me. "I guess I can get one there if I don't get one here."
The crowd was raucous at first, but the 90+ degree temperatures combined with high humidity and a 4 hour wait left many of the partisans fatigued by the time McCain, Palin, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee arrived. Nonetheless, the delegation received a wild, celebratory reception when the Straight Talk Express pulled into the ball park.
Before McCain arrived, Bill Reich, a fellow POW at the Hanoi Hilton and now a resident of the St. Louis area, told the crowd why he's voting for John McCain.
"I was a newbie, arriving after 1970," the giant of a man told the crowd. "John had been there for five years already. I was taken into an interrogation room, which wasn't really an interrogation. This just after a large number of POWs had been released. 'Wouldn't you like to follow them?' they asked me. 'All you need is the right attitude about this and you can go home with them.'"
Reich paused and cleared his throat. Speaking in trembling voice, wiping a tear from his heroic cheek, he continued, "I feel ashamed to stand here and admit to you how inviting that offer sounded. But I said, 'No.'"
Continuing the story, "They made John McCain the same offer. I had been there only six months, and I can't tell you how hard it was for me to turn them down. John had been for five years and conditions got a lot better before I arrived than they were most of the time John and the others had been there. John did the right thing. When the time came, he made it. And he taught us newbies about courage and honor."
A large delegation of Chicago Area Democrats for McCain received proud ovations from the crowd. Seated directly behind the main stage the Chicago Dems were louder, prouder, and more animated their Republican brethren. They were joined by a former Hillary supporter and life-long Democrat activist from the St. Charles, Missouri, area, who is voting for McCain because of his heroic principles and service to the country. His selection of Palin for Veep didn't hurt, either, she told us.
Mike Huckabee's short speech was powerful. I have never seen a man connect so perfectly and immediately with a crowd. He was magic. Despite my massive opposition to many of his views, I see why he experienced that surge in the early primaries. Combine Huckabee's charisma with Thompson's positions and you'd have something more powerful than Reagan.
McCain emphasized Gustav preparedness. He announced that the RNC convention would conduct required party business, but all of the pomp and celebration was canceled. Instead, he will marshal the delegates' energies to help the victims of the storm. John McCain really means it when he says "Country First." Refreshing.
The highlight, of course, and longest speech of the day was Governor Sarah Palin. The hot, tired crowd returned to full-throated life when McCain introduced his running mate.
Palin also concentrated on the need for relief efforts over politics, but she reminded the crowd that Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas all have powerful, brilliant Republican governors this time around. Preparations in Louisiana, thanks to Bobby Jindal and President Bush are miles ahead of Katrina preps. And just as Haley Barbour's Mississippi handled Katrina more deftly than Louisiana, the Republican governors will overcome whatever Gustav throws their way. We the people won't have it any other way.
I hope anyone who was at the rally will leave their impressions in the comments. Here's a short, crappy clip of Palin.
*UPDATE* More bloggers blogging this event: Gateway Pundit with media links; Bob McCarty with photos and more. Politico's Jonathan Martin (h/t Gateway Pundit) says this was McCain's largest crowd of the campaign:
As one veteran of Missouri politics said, that's the sort of crowd usually seen in October for a president — not in August for a candidate.
It's also a record-best for McCain.
Yes, yes, it's just about a routine crowd for Obama. But there is perhaps no better indicator of how Palin is helping McCain close the enthusiasm gap than the number of people showing up the past two days in Pennsylvania and Missouri.