Politics & Government

Will Palin's book tour jump-start a political movement?

eanna Steele of Houston, Pennsylvania, waves her copy of Sarah Palin's new book while waiting to get into Palin's book signing.
eanna Steele of Houston, Pennsylvania, waves her copy of Sarah Palin's new book while waiting to get into Palin's book signing. Jason Cohn /MCT

WASHINGTON, Pa. — When Sarah Palin made her first trip to western Pennsylvania as GOP presidential candidate John McCain's fresh-faced running mate, the Arizona senator warned locals that she "doesn't let anyone tell her to sit down."

Palin returned to Washington, Pa. on her own Saturday as a "Commonsense Conservative," a definition crafted on her own terms and in her own words in her best-selling memoir, "Going Rogue."

"It's grass roots America; it's common sense," said Joy Koplinski, 62, a retiree from Pittsburgh who waited overnight in the parking lot of a Sam's Club warehouse store for Palin to autograph a copy of the book. "She's the female Ronald Reagan."

In the first few days of a cross-country book tour to promote her memoir, the former Alaska governor's supporters have greeted her with a populist fervor unmatched in Internet-age Republican politics.

From her first stop last week in Grand Rapids, Mich., to Saturday's lunchtime book signing at the Washington, Pa., Sam's Club, thousands of people have lined up for hours, often in the cold, for a few moments in Palin's presence.

Since she stepped down this summer as Alaska governor, Palin has been cagey about her plans. But with her campaign-style bus and adoring crowds reminiscent of her vice presidential bid, her swing through red zones of bluish states — Indiana, Pennsylvania and Virginia — has appeared to be something more than a book tour.

While it's too early to call it a campaign, Palin's brand of common sense conservatism crackles with the energy of a burgeoning political movement.

In "The Way Forward," the title of the final chapter of her memoir, she says that her persona and her political philosophy are based on common sense that were last espoused by Reagan, her political idol. The role of government, Palin writes, "is not to perfect us, but to protect us."

Some, like Doug McKinnis, see Palin's political philosophy as a stand against what he describes as "government control, dependence on the government and loss of liberty."

McKinnis, a 48-year-old commercial pilot from Palin's Alaska hometown, Wasilla, was visiting his mother in Pennsylvania when he learned that Palin was signing books. He dropped by the Sam's Club with his "Alaskans Love Sarah" sign.

"The way I see things going in our country, there are two lines," McKinnis said. The line he waited in outside the Palin event represents "liberty, freedom, independence and a constitutional government."

The other line is just the opposite, McKinnis said. "I want to be in the line of freedom, and I think Sarah Palin is a voice for freedom."

Palin appears to have tapped into a powerful strain of populism fueled by dissatisfaction with the economy and by fear that the Democratic Party that's running the country is made up of elites who aren't listening, said Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University in Iowa.

"A populist is against big, period," Goldford said. "The populist basically says, 'Look, big labor, big business, big government, they're all trying to screw me, the little guy.' That populism that she's tapped into, it's partly a politics of resentment. She's very much somebody who bristles with all sorts of resentments."

The term coined by Palin in her book has been around for a while, said Greg Mueller, a conservative strategist and a veteran of Republican presidential campaigns. Palin, however, seems to have seized on something timely by putting her brand on common sense conservatism, he said.

"If Palin is using it," Mueller said, "there's a very good chance it's going to have resonance in certain communities."

Those communities include a vast network of people who are connected online and unified by the Tea Party protests of the summer, as well as those who've taken up their cause, including FOX News talk show hosts Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.

If Palin wanted, she could lead that movement, said sisters Leann Marcolini, 51, and Amy Jo Brown, 39, both of Fredericktown, Pa.

"Her no-nonsense, we're-not-going-to-take-it-anymore attitude is what inspired the Tea Party movement," said Brown, a schoolteacher. "She talks the talk and walks the walk."

In western Pennsylvania, there's a deep distrust of the federal government, both sisters said, dating to efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up coal mining practices in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They fear a repeat of those times if Congress passes cap-and-trade legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

"This area's been hit hard by liberal policies," Brown said, and if cap-and-trade moves forward, "it's going to hit these industries again," Marcolini said.

Palin, Marcolini said, speaks for the people who "our elitist government is not bothering to listen to."

"You have to have common sense," she said.

During the campaign, Palin returned repeatedly to western Pennsylvania, partly in the hope that the same independent-minded Democrats who elected Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and wanted to see a woman closer to the White House would choose the McCain-Palin ticket. The campaign lost the state, but it eked out a narrow victory in the congressional district that Palin visited Saturday.

A year after the election and deeper into an economic downtown, though, Palin's common sense conservatism struck a nerve among the people who waited overnight for her autograph on their books.

Steven Zerbini, a 19-year-old college student and National Guardsman from Greensburg, Pa., offered his own definition of it.

"It's not bringing in a terrorist to civilian courts in New York City," Zerbini said, referring to confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. "It's not raising taxes in a recession."

"Don't spend what you don't have," added Jim Baney, 38, who befriended Zerbini when the two were the first to queue up outside the Sam's Club more than 18 hours before Palin was due to arrive.

"I'd call it down to earth, it's what she's campaigning about," said Letitia Shavinsky-Jeram, 55, before she was reminded that Palin was, in fact, not running for anything. She amended her statement.

"I'm praying she's campaigning," Shavinsky-Jeram said. "I hope she is, because I'm there for her. She can see where this country needs to go."

Palin might as well be campaigning, said Kathy Martin-Nomura, 59, a corporate trainer from Hagerstown, Md. It's Palin herself, she said, not her book, that inspired her and others to spend the night on beach chairs, shivering under sleeping bags to ward off the 45-degree chill.

"That's just an excuse," Martin-Nomura said of the memoir. "We're here because of her ideology."

Palin also has any future vote of Bernadette Gariglio of Cherry Valley, Pa. She and her husband voted for Palin in 2008 — in spite of John McCain, Gariglio said.

"And we will vote for her again," she said.

It remains to be seen whether Palin has a future in what Goldford called "the politics of resentment." A recent CNN poll found that seven in 10 people don't think Palin is qualified to be president, he said, but there's a movement coalescing, and it's a powerful force if she can harness it.

"Angry people turn out to vote," he said. "People who aren't angry don't turn out to vote as much. In the American political system, small groups of intensely motivated and angry people often gain a victory over a larger group that's less intensely motivated and not angry."


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