Election 2008

'If You Can Run the PTA, You Can Run the Country' -- Republicans Explain Their Support for Palin

Interviews with supporters at a McCain-Palin presidential rally in Ohio share their heartfelt reasons for embracing the vice presidential candidate.
Sarah Palin's vice-presidential candidacy has provoked no shortage of strong opinions. But while critics on the left and in the mainstream media have found ample reasons to criticize her, Palin's Republican supporters have their own heartfelt reasons to embrace and defend her candidacy.

In a series of interviews with Palin supporters on Monday before a Bexley, Ohio rally featuring Palin and GOP presidential nominee John McCain, Palin fans detailed many reasons why they like -- if not love -- her candidacy.

They said she was feisty, plain spoken and not afraid to take on fights others shirk from. She was from the middle-class, balanced family and work, and had worked at thankless jobs -- like her local PTA -- and exemplified Christian family values. They said Palin was a fast learner, was undaunted by her critics, and gave hope to women who see her rising to the role given to her by McCain. And, most notably, they said she would be a good president.

"I've been there," said Ellie Plessinger, a real estate consultant from Saganaw, Michigan, who extolled Palin's work on local schools. "If you can run the PTA, you can run the country."

"She's real. Everyone can identify with her," said Karen Rinehart, from Pinkerton, a suburb of Columbus, who praised her clarity. "She has five kids. I have six."

"She is a go-getter. She is adorable," said Diedre Smalley, from Lancaster, also near Columbus, who was enthralled by Palin's values. "She is conservative. She is family oriented. She is pro-life. She is her own woman. She makes me feel proud."

These and other comments reveal that Palin's supporters feel as strongly about her as her liberal critics. In conversations with these and other fans at a rally at Capital University, a Lutheran school in a small township inside Ohio's capital city, it became clear that Palin's political base was formidable and undeterred by her critics and detractors, including editorialists who have said she is unprepared to become president.

"Who is?" replied Rinehart, when asked if Palin was prepared to be president. "You can't say that anybody who has been there has been prepared for it. You are not prepared for it until you do it. Nobody is prepared for vice-president or president until you do it."

"I think he (McCain) is very knowledgeable about defense and security; I don't know how knowledgeable she is about that," she said. "But she has the gumption to learn and do what is right. You don't read about Alaska in the tabloids. You read about Washington and everywhere else. She has kept it clean."

"When she did her (Republican National Convention) speech, I was floored," Smalley said. "They (McCain and Palin) are exactly what America needs right now."

While Palin critics have scorned her experiences as provincial and not world-wise, Palin's middle-class roots and family life pleased these supporters.

"I come from the middle-class," said Plessinger. "She symbolizes the middle class by her story. She wasn't raised like the Kennedys or Teresa Heinz Kerry or the Rockefellers. The richest people in our government are Democrats. It came out last week. John Kerry was the richest. You get the idea that they come into our politics like they are entitled. The drive-by media has made misperception that only the Republicans are elite, or are wealthy."

Plessinger said she was put off by media reports that describe Alaska as "backwards or unsophisticated." She said she, like Palin, has worked on her local PTA "in leadership positions" for many years "for the kids." Plessinger was impressed that Palin not only took on thankless hard PTA fights and won, but that she then sought higher office.

"You have to deal with all kinds of conflicting interests," she said, referring to working for local schools. "People diminish that and say it doesn't matter. Palin was successful. Then she runs for governor and takes on problems in our party. She saw corruption and she stood up to it. She stood up to the oil industry. I know exactly what it takes I wish we had leaders like that in Ohio."

Plessinger was wearing six Palin campaign buttons, including one showing Palin holding a shotgun saying, in pink lettering, "Read my Lipstick: Change is Coming."

"She came from a middle-class family. She did it with conviction and grit," Plessinger concluded. "God's in charge. I'm voting for God first."

Others at the rally were drawn to Palin's accomplishments as a mother and politician.

"She's awesome," said Tracey Chernek, a nursing student from Columbus. "She says what she needs to say without backing down. She is a lot like Sen. McCain. They are very opinionated and they don't back down."

Chernek said Palin's ability to balance work and family were inspiring.

"She has a family and a lot of Americans can relate to that," she said. "She is a working mother. She has kids. She works and she balances it out. A lot of women struggle with that."

Chernek also said she was offended by attacks in the media on Palin's family.

"There is a lot of bad press -- like her daughter who is pregnant at 17. You can't chastise a family for having a daughter who is pregnant at 17. A lot of parents worry about that or have been in that situation themselves. It's part of life. She has a normal family like everybody else. I think it is kind of seamy that Democrats get on her butt about mistakes her daughter made."

"It's her integrity," Smalley said, "what she has done for her state, and yet she is able to have a family, a career, a husband. It just gives woman hope that we can do it. She is sassy and we like sassy."

Perspective, please

Liberal critics will take issue with many of these assertions about Palin's experience, family life, political record and accomplishments. Indeed, many of the traits praised by Palin's supporters came from her Republican National Convention speech that was not written by her, but like all presidential campaigns, crafted by speechwriters to echo the campaign's talking points to the media and voters.

But Palin's critics risk not fully understanding the race's dynamics by underestimating her or her base, just as the GOP risks underestimating the enthusiasm of first-time voters who support Barack Obama. It is not an accident that Palin was chosen by McCain to be his running mate. Indeed, at the Monday rally, while McCain attacked Obama, Palin introduced some new lines of attack -- on Obama and on Joe Biden, the Democratic vice presidential nominee. Palin began by referring to last week's presidential debate.

"He (McCain) was the only man on that stage who talked about the wars America was fighting and was not afraid to use the word victory," Palin said, opening a line of attack that said McCain was the only man in the race. "He was the only man on that stage who will solve our economic crisis and not exploit it, the maverick who always puts country first. And he was the only man on that stage who has a plan that will actually help working families and put the economy back on track like you all deserve. Ohio, that's the kind of man, that's the kind of leadership that we need in Washington and that's the kind of man that we will get if you vote for him."

That part of her speech was reminiscent of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger early months in office when he attacked California Democrats as "girlie men" for not adopting his legislative proposals.

Palin gamely said she was ready to debate Biden this Thursday.

"And I do look forward to Thursday night and debating Sen. Joe Biden," she said. "We are going to talk about new ideas and new energy for America. I'm looking forward to meeting him. I've never met him before. But I have been hearing about his speeches since I was like in second grade."

"I have to admit though, he is a great debater and looks pretty doggone confident like he's sure he's gonna win," she continued. "But then again, this is the same Senator Biden who said the other day that the University of Delaware would trounce the Ohio State Buckeyes. Wrong!"

Palin's remarks brought cheers and jeers, revving up the party's Ohio base in a rally that was attended by several thousand people, half of them college students. While Democrats in the room ridiculed her remarks and those by McCain -- especially his claim that only he was free from special interest money in Washington -- by recalling how McCain was among five senators who were called "the Keating five" in a savings and loan scandal, the mood in the room seemed to transcend any real discussion about facts or history.

Instead, the GOP faithful firmly believed in their view of their party and its candidates. They were excited by Palin's presence -- as measured by cheers. Nobody interviewed praised McCain for being "sassy," or showing "grit," or being a "go-getter" or being inspirational. She spoke for 11 minutes; McCain spoke for 16 minutes.

On Tuesday, with Election Day 35 days away, early voting begins in Ohio. There is a five-day window where new voters can register and vote before the voter registration deadline closes. How many new voters each party attracts in this window will reveal much about the race's momentum in Ohio. That metric, more than the campaign's rhetoric and fervor of supporters, will be the real reality test.

AlterNet is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by its writers are their own.
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and author of Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting (AlterNet Books, 2008).
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018