NEW PORT RICHEY
The black sky was just lifting as cars filled a church parking lot a few blocks from Sims Park. Two women got out of a van.
"I hear the band!" one woman shouted and they walked faster toward the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was a little after 7 a.m. Saturday and some people had already been there for hours, ready to hear GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin speak in New Port Richey.
She was slated to go on at 9 a.m. The gates opened at 6 a.m. Blue police cars — one with two big boxes of Dunkin' Donuts coffee on the trunk — blocked off roads near the event.
Darlene Cooper managed one of the ticket lines. She's 65, lives in Bayonet Point and retired in June after 37 years of teaching high school math. A few weeks ago, not used to having time on her hands, she called up a Republican office and asked how she could help. They asked her to be at the park at 5 a.m.
"Take out your cell phone, your keys, any metal, for the security detector," she said briskly, in the way of a teacher, to bleary-eyed people who were crushed they couldn't bring in their coffee.
"I think McCain has served his country," she said, of why she volunteers. "Obama serves himself."
Anna Jacobson left her Sarasota home at 2 a.m. to get to the rally. She helps her son with his campaign merchandise business. They've racked up 7,000 miles following the rallies. Jacobson only does the Republican ones, though.
"I love her," she said of Palin. "She's one of us."
Jane Chapin drove her Winnebago to the rally. She lives in Palm Harbor and is an artist. She said she switched to the Republican party because it just made sense to her. She spent the past year traveling to paint in every state — she needs only Arizona and Hawaii to complete all 50 states — and it made her appreciate its freedoms.
She has been volunteering at a Republican office in St. Petersburg, and that's where she met Karen Garland of Tarpon Springs. The women became friends — and they grew bored with sitting in the office, making calls.
"Let's get out there," Chapin said. And they found someone to paint McCain/Palin billboards on the Winnebago and now the two women — "rogue Republicans," they call themselves — spend much of their time driving up and down highways, hitting truck stops and handing out fliers.
"We are boots on the ground," Chapin said Saturday, wearing a Christmas hat with fuzzy antlers that she covered with a McCain/Palin sticker. Underneath, it says "Merry Chrismoose."
Inside the park, the energy was high as people listened to speakers warming them up for Palin. When the Rev. Guy Sanders of First Baptist Church in New Port Richey asked them to bow their heads in prayer, they did — but kept their hands up, video recorders and cameras on — and said "Amen" as the reverend walked off the stage to the tune of Sweet Home Alabama.
Susan Casson and her husband, Leonard, and their 12-year-old daughter, Emily, happened to be in town visiting family and heard Palin was speaking. They live in Pittsburgh, where Leonard is a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. Susan wore a shirt she made that said "Palin" and "Girl Power."
"She's solid," she said.
"I wish she would run for president," said her daughter.
When Palin came out to AC/DC's Thunderstruck, the crowd went wild, a sea of red, white and blue pompoms. The audience topped 5,500 — a larger crowd than the 3,500 who greeted Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden in the same park just five days earlier.
Palin stuck to her traditional rally speech, talking up the need to "drill, baby, drill" and criticizing Obama's proposal to raise taxes on richer Americans while lowering them for others.
"Good ol' Joe the Plumber, he said to him it sounded like socialism," Palin said, as the crowd erupted.
Palin kept her speech under a half-hour, as she had several other rallies that day. The crowd loved it when she used the word "doggoned."
"How cute!" Susan Casson shouted.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.