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Palin shows 2012 aura in Rust Belt As she visits Erie, Pa., many backers already are thinking ahead

Taking the stage Thursday to the strains of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" in front of signs that said "We Love Sarah" and "Sarah Loves Us," the Republican vice presidential nominee smiled and waved and smiled and waved, prompting a roar from the crowd that would have made Mick Jagger proud.

And then Sarah Palin tore into a stump speech for her running mate, Republican presidential nominee John McCain, that left many in the crowd of 6,000 thinking McCain in 20O8 -- or Palin in 2012.

"I'd work for her campaign," said Lee Semrau, 48, of the Town of Tonawanda, who's all for Palin because "she's refreshing, and she gets people going," and because "she doesn't take garbage from anybody."

Semrau stood at the exit of Erie's Harborfront Convention Center, proudly clutching a Sabres jersey that Palin had just autographed, and echoed what several other Paliniacs said.

"She has more energy than John McCain," he said.

And that energy has clearly infused a large segment of the Republican Party's base with hope -- hope that the polls are wrong and, if not, hope that the party of Lincoln and the party of Reagan soon could soon be the party of Palin.

"She's got to get a little bit more informed about policy, and maybe go overseas more," Semrau acknowledged, noting that she might well
have four years to do just that.

Democrat Barack Obama maintains a lead of 5.9 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics.com average of national polls. And even more ominously for McCain, Obama holds a strong lead in most of the swing states that either candidate needs to guarantee victory.

Despite the polls -- and despite the pummeling Palin has endured from the pundits -- she's on a mission to Middle America, visiting such Pennsylvania locales as Erie and Williamsport and Latrobe to sell the GOP ticket.

"You face a choice on Tuesday," she said. "It is the choice between a politician who puts his faith in bigger government or a leader who puts his faith in all of you. It's a choice between a politician who wants to spread the wealth you earn with your hard work and a leader who will spread opportunity and lower your taxes."

>Rock star quality

This, however, was a crowd that didn't need a sales pitch. All but one of the dozen voters interviewed before and after the event said they would certainly vote for McCain-Palin -- and Palin was the reason some are so proud to do it.

For example, Debbie Navecky, 42, of East Springfield, Pa., said Palin is one of the big reasons she's about to vote for the first time.

"I think she's great," Navecky said. "She's going to be good for us. She's already done a lot, with everything she's done in Alaska. She's really going to clean up the act in Washington."

While many in the crowd cited their -- and Palin's -- opposition to abortion as the reason they are voting Republican, Navecky said she disagrees with Palin on that issue. But Navecky said she thinks the world of Palin nevertheless.

"She's upfront. She loves people," Navecky said.

Phyllis Firth, 46, of Westfield, N.Y., agreed.

"I love her!," said Firth, who described herself as a nail technician. "She's outgoing, she's down to earth, and she's honest from the get-go. . . . I heard her speak, and I said, 'That's the pit bull I'd like in Washington.' "

Palin's ferocious speaking style has made her something of a rock star on the campaign trail, frequently drawing bigger crowds than McCain.

The trouble is, if she's a rock star, she's Pat Benatar -- popular with her fans, but not with a legion of critics.

After a barrage of criticism of her performance in interviews with television anchors Charles Gibson and Katie Couric, and revelations about her record in Alaska, her "unfavorable" rating has skyrocketed from 27 percent in early September to 46 percent this week, according to polls commissioned by Fox News.

The Palin nomination, meanwhile, has prompted something of a civil war in the Republican chattering class.

"In the past two weeks, she has spent her time throwing out tinny lines to crowds she doesn't, really, understand. This is not a leader; this is a follower," Peggy Noonan, who crafted speeches for President Ronald Reagan, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal. "In the end, the Palin candidacy is a symptom and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics."

Rich Lowry of the National Review, on the other hand, praised Palin's recent debate performance as a sign that the GOP had a new great communicator on its hands.

As Palin winked and smiled, "it sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America," he wrote. "This is a quality that can't be learned; it's either something you have or you don't, and man, she's got it."

Palin's star quality doesn't make her an early favorite for the 2012 nomination -- according to a recent Newsweek poll, she's behind both Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee -- but it's enough to leave Palin's fans thinking wishfully.

"I think she'll be the next Republican presidential candidate," said Amanda Evanoff, 21, a GOP committeewoman in Erie. "Who else is there in the Republican Party like this?"

For sure, few Republicans could match Palin's choreography. She entered the arena in Erie with her husband, Todd, and youngest daughter, Piper, 7, at her side; together they looked like a well-scrubbed version of many of the families in the crowd.

And the crowd responded in kind, frantically waving red pompoms and cheering wildly and breaking out into chants of "USA! USA!"

>'Shake up Washington'

In a contrast with many of Palin's performances, the crowd in Erie remained polite throughout, not once hurling invective toward Obama.

Palin fired up the crowd with a speech that stressed what Obama largely left out of his half-hour national infomercial a night earlier.

"In times of economic worry and hardship -- crisis that we're in right now -- someone is attempting to put those concerns aside on Election Day: national security issues," Palin said.

Accusing Democrats of wanting to slash the defense budget even though Obama has promised to build a bigger Army, Palin said McCain was the clear choice on national security issues.

"He would not wave the white flag of surrender to terrorists," she said. "He knows how to win a war. We need John McCain as the next commander in chief."

Stressing that McCain believes what Reagan believed in -- "the forward movement of freedom and not the constant expansion of government" -- Palin said the GOP ticket needs Pennsylvania's support to win.

"If you believe we can shake up Washington and get the economic recovery going, we need your vote, Pennsylvania!" she said.

And with that, Palin plunged into the crowd to shake hands, as the sound system struck up Shania Twain's "She's Not Just a Pretty Face."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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