THE VILLAGES — Fourteen months ago, Lori Pitner came to this same place, saw this same face and left with an enthusiasm for her political party she'd never experienced before.
"She's so real," said Pitner, 46, a stay-at-home mother and Sunday school teacher from near Mount Dora who camped out a day ahead of time to get another glimpse of a woman she wants to emulate:
Palin dipped through Florida on Tuesday on her "Going Rogue" book tour, sandwiching a stop at the Villages retirement community between visits to Jacksonville and Orlando.
A lot has happened to Palin since she drew a record crowd of 25,000 to 60,000 to the Villages in a September 2008 rally as a fresh face on John McCain's presidential ticket. She has gone from national unknown to conservative star, from governor of Alaska to failed vice presidential nominee with a book to sell and a story to tell.
And while Palin might draw the scorn of moderate Republicans who see her as a wedge in the national party, those people weren't at the retirement community from 2:30 until 5 on Tuesday.
Those people weren't among the hundreds who lined up hours ahead of time (some as early as Monday afternoon), who filed into the store clutching their limit of two books, who shook hands with Palin and whispered, "God bless you," as she smiled and signed with a giant swirl of her black Sharpie.
Pitner said Palin's trials have only made the 45-year-old mother of five more attractive as a political candidate and conservative voice.
"You don't know what somebody's made of until they've gone through the hot water," Pitner said. "She was steeped in hot water."
Make no mistake, this wasn't September 2008.
The crowd that gathered in the parking lot outside the bookstore numbered in the hundreds, perhaps as high as 1,000, though Barnes & Noble organizers declined to release any numbers.
For comparison, radio and TV commentator Glenn Beck said 25,000 showed up Saturday for his rally in this active over-50 community that has become a must stop for GOP candidates and that is now equally attractive to conservative icons long after the votes have been counted.
But the devotion of those who did show Tuesday was complete.
They cheered when the "Going Rogue" tour bus rolled into view, Palin's smiling face beaming out from an Alaskan mountain backdrop.
They chanted when she descended with baby Trig in her arms and daughter Piper, 8, not far behind.
They waved cameras, wore "Palin 2012" T-shirts and "Women for Palin" buttons, and patiently waited when they became a surprise backdrop for Palin's 20-minute sit-down interview with FOX & Friends host Gretchen Carlson, expected to air this morning on the Fox News Channel. As her mother spoke, Piper trailed behind her toddling brother, the one whose hair she famously smoothed down with a little spit at the Republican National Convention.
"There's something very special about this place," Palin told the cheering crowd. "You guys are all so energetic and inspiring and encouraging."
Cheri Meadows, 65, a resident of the Villages for 17 years, had her own word for Palin: "courageous."
Meadows attended the September rally, too. Back then, the Alaska governor had just what Meadows needed as persuasion to vote for McCain.
All these months later, even after the failed campaign, the legal inquiries and the bumbled Katie Couric interview, Meadows said she couldn't think more highly of the basketball player-turned-political figure.
"If anything," Meadows said, "the adversity she's had to go through has strengthened my opinion of her."
Meadows believes that Palin had a good reason for leaving the governorship. She relates to Palin's description of herself as a mother bear protecting her cubs in her public spat with David Letterman after the late-night TV host made a controversial joke about Palin's daughter.
Meadows has no doubt that the Palin unleashed from the McCain campaign is the real Palin — the one she caught a glimpse of here in 2008 and the one she'd like an opportunity to vote for again.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8556 or [email protected]