THE VILLAGES — "This is Palin Country!" declared a banner in the town square of this retirement community, and it could hardly have been more of an understatement.
Thousands of people waited hours in the sweltering heat Sunday afternoon to see Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin make her Florida debut. The speech had the crowd so excited it could have passed for a visit by the pope, instead of a mere running mate.
As it was, Palin's appearance at The Villages drew what appeared to be the largest crowd of any presidential rally in Florida this year.
"Florida, over the next 44 days, John McCain and I are taking our case for reform to voters of every background in every party or no party at all,'' said the Alaska governor, joined by her husband, "First Dude" Todd, and three of their five children, 13-year-old Willow, 7-year-old Piper and 5-month-old Trig. "Florida, with your vote, we're going to win and we're going to Washington to shake things up. We need Florida to help us do it.''
There was no official crowd estimate and unofficial estimates, from 25,000 up to 60,000, were impossible to verify. By comparison, President Bush drew an estimated 15,000 to The Villages four years ago.
"We needed someone to re-unite the Republican Party and bring the conservative base back,'' said Paul Wichert, a Fed Ex employee, who drove up from Riverview. "Without it, there was nowhere near as much enthusiasm and you never could have had a crowd like this."
Rescue workers removed dozens of spectators overtaken by 90-degree heat in a crowd dotted with "Read My Lipstick" buttons and at least one "Sweatin' for Sarah" placard. Country rocker Aaron Tippin warmed up the throng with a set featuring his newest song, Drill Here, Drill Now, while overhead a plane circled pulling a "The South is Palin Country" sign.
Palin's 23-minute speech offered little new, even her most passionate fans acknowledged. But it didn't matter.
"She's awesome. She's genuine. She's believable," said Dade City lawyer Nancy Alfonso. "When she says she'll go to Washington and make changes, I believe she will."
Reading from a teleprompter, the 44-year-old governor painted Democrat Barack Obama as a chronic tax-raiser and said McCain is the only one who has a proven record of reaching across the aisle to get things accomplished in Congress.
"Our opponent likes to point the finger of blame, but has he ever lifted a finger to help? Has he ever reached out a reformer's hand to the other side of the aisle?'' she asked. "In order to get others to say 'yes' to change, has he ever told his own party 'no'? When it comes to reform, he says, 'I will,' but has he ever been able to say, 'We did'?"
The McCain campaign has largely kept Palin away from media interviews and this Florida stop was no different. Not that any of her fans were bothered by the media's inability to ask the candidate questions.
"You're expecting a lady who just stepped in to be at your beck and call,'' said retired Army veteran J.T. Shirley of Marion County. "She'll be out there. She's not afraid of the press."
With nearly 70,000 seniors clustered in north-central Florida, The Villages is one of the nation's largest and fastest-growing retirement communities and one of Florida's greatest Republican strongholds. Bush won more than 60 percent of the 2004 vote here, and turnout approached 80 percent.
People take golf seriously in The Villages, and Palin sought common ground.
"Some people don't think Alaska and Florida have much in common, but we have a lot in common. For instance, we're both home to some of the nation's most passionate golfers,'' quipped Palin, who took time off the campaign trail Saturday to take her daughters to Disney World.
"Of course, there are some differences. Like golfers in Florida, we also dream of breaking into the 70s. But, in Alaska, we usually mean degrees. And up in Alaska, we refer to 'winter rules' simply as 'the rules.' "
Palin, acknowledging the economic crisis, promised a McCain-Palin administration would crack down with "better regulation" of Wall Street.
"This week, when the economic crisis threatened the livelihood of millions of Americans, John McCain took a clear stand and he offered his own recovery plan. Our opponent refused to even take a stand," Palin said.
Campaigning in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday, Obama blasted McCain as ill-equipped to do much for the economy except continue the agenda of the Bush administration.
"We're now seeing the disastrous consequences of this philosophy all around us, on Wall Street as well as Main Street. And yet Senator McCain, who candidly admitted not long ago that he doesn't know as much about economics as he should, wants to keep going down the same, disastrous path."
Palin is headed to Pennsylvania today for a rally with McCain.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8241.