CLEARWATER — Sarah Palin is coming. The surprise announcement hit Tampa Bay's political scene like an A-bomb on Thursday.
At first, Republican organizers expected a relatively light turnout for the vice presidential candidate's speech because of its time and location — 8 a.m. Monday at Coachman Park in downtown Clearwater. The gates open at 6 a.m.
"It's first thing in the morning on Monday and it's near the beach — not the most accessible location," said Pinellas GOP chairman Tony DiMatteo. "We were shooting for maybe 5,000 people. You never know."
Then a steady stream of Palin fans kept showing up at local GOP offices Thursday, scrambling for tickets to the rally.
"Look at this," said a disbelieving DiMatteo, gesturing to a constant flow of people outside the Pinellas GOP headquarters in the rear of an obscure office park near St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. "This isn't exactly the easiest place to find."
DiMatteo said the free tickets would continue to be available today and Saturday at Republican Party offices throughout the bay area. Pinellas County offices received most of the local tickets, but some are also available in Pasco, Hernando, Hillsborough and Manatee counties.
The GOP's three Pinellas offices handed out 4,000 tickets Thursday, party officials said. People picking them up weren't being asked if they were Republicans. But they were asked to sign up for a mailing list.
Palin is making a two-day swing through Florida next week. After Clearwater, she heads to Fort Myers. On Tuesday, she'll make stops in Jacksonville and Pensacola.
Her local appearance comes on the heels of Barack Obama speaking at a rally in Dunedin last week.
"It's good for Pinellas County and Tampa Bay to get all the access to the candidates that we've been receiving," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. "Obviously, Florida is an important state, and the I-4 corridor is an important region in the state. It pretty much decides who's going to win."
Coachman Park, 301 Drew St., holds roughly 12,000 people and is the site of the annual Clearwater Jazz Holiday, set for Oct. 16-19 this year.
The McCain campaign picked the venue partly because preparations are already under way at the park for the jazz festival, DiMatteo said. The park is also preparing for other concerts Oct. 10-11.
Organizers are lining up musical acts, other speakers and a salute to local veterans before Palin takes the stage at 9 a.m.
Cameras are allowed, but people going to the rally are advised to pack light because they'll go through a security checkpoint.
The city of Clearwater is making plans to set up a remote parking lot, possibly at Jack Russell Stadium, with shuttle service to Coachman Park.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican whose district includes North Pinellas and parts of Pasco, Hernando, and Citrus counties, will be at Monday's event and said McCain-Palin supporters throughout his district are clamoring for tickets.
"She offers a breath of fresh air," Fasano said. "She's not a Washington bureaucrat."
Fasano said the rally is a political necessity for the McCain campaign, which sees the region as critical to winning Florida in November.
Hours before Thursday's vice-presidential debate, local GOP offices were abuzz with Palin fans eager to see her in the flesh.
Tracie White, a lifelong Clearwater resident and mother of five, brought her homeschooled 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, with her to get tickets. The girl had her picture taken with George W. Bush when she was a baby but was too young to remember it.
"She'll remember this one," her mother said.
Times staff writer Will Van Sant contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.