It's Friday night, and there have got to be 500 people packed into the Sluice Box, a beer-soaked clapboard honky-tonk at the Alaska State Fair the state's biggest event all year just down the highway from Governor Sarah Palin's hometown of Wasilla. The legendary Hobo Jim, Alaska's official state balladeer, the guy who has opened sessions of the legislature with a song, is onstage, working blue.
"Here's to the girl from the great Northwest," he sings, "with tits as hard as a hornet's nest." The crowd whistles its approval.
For the record, he's not singing about Palin, though the curvature and comeliness of McCain's surprise vice-presidential nominee pick are brought up by just about everyone here, man and woman, in a way that would make lower-48 liberals and feminists cringe. Palin-friendly talk show hosts gush how she'll wow 'em with her toughness and her legs. State fair t-shirt vendor Kevin Beagley says he remembers one particular customer last year who bought a few t-shirts that said "Alaska: The Coldest State with the Hottest Governor". The buyer? Palin's own father, Chuck Heath.
Hobo Jim, with his old cowboy hat and very new John McCain sticker on his guitar, has the crowd dancing and drinking now.
He plays a Patsy Cline cover. They cheer. He gives shout-outs to the military, then to the great Alaska Railroad. They cheer. He plays the Star-Spangled Banner. They cheer.
Then he takes a set break so everyone can step outside to smoke and watch the fireworks pop off above the adjacent field. When the finale comes, a burst of greens sizzlers, they cheer.
Back inside: "How many of you've seen the Discovery Channel Deadliest Catch? Ice Road Truckers?" Cheer. "We're getting famous up here!" Huge cheer.
"And now our governor's going to be Vice President!" Roar.
That's how it was throughout the State Fair on Friday. The news of Palin's selection is an intoxicating mix for the people here: pride in a hometown hero, good news (finally!) for a scandal-racked Alaska, and, for this deeply red part of the state, relief that the Republican Presidential ticket just got a lot more conservative than it was.
No wonder T-shirts saying Go Sarah! started sprouting up by mid-afternoon. Beagley's own homemade batch of 150 McCain/Palin t-shirts arrived at 2 p.m. and were sold out within the hour, leaving Palin fans sifting in vain through piles of shirts that say Grim Reefer and Chicks Dig Me. In town, businesses have been putting up exuberant messages of support, as if Sarah! was once again on the high school basketball team, headed off to state finals.
Across the row from the State Fair livestock pavilion with its champion pigs, giant cabbage and 900-lb. pumpkins Eddie Grasser mans an NRA booth. Palin is a lifetime NRA member a demographic that has not been particularly high on John McCain and Grasser couldn't be more excited about the governor he calls Sarah. Like Grasser, everyone here seems to be on a first name basis with their politicians. "It's just one of those things about Alaska politics," says Grasser. So Governor Palin is Sarah, the irascible (and currently indicted) Senator Stevens is Uncle Ted, and even Representative Young, that venal pork-barreler whom few should admit to being friendly with, is Don.
The Palins certainly seem to fit into Wasilla, which has just over 7,000 inhabitants. This town has grown east and west along the railroad, becoming the fastest-growing community in the state. Many credit Palin with helping that expansion, though critics say it is a textbook case of unchecked suburban sprawl. As mayor, she pushed property taxes down to miniscule amounts, and the low 2.5% sales tax has enticed big box retailers like WalMart and Target to come in.
The Palin family lives on Lake Lucille on the western end of town she's always maintained her residence here, even though the Capitol is a long flight away in Juneau. It's a perfectly Alaskan lake: still waters ringed by evergreens and saw-toothed peaks, staged beneath a wolf-colored sky. You can just make out Palin's house a stone's throw from the public launch at the Best Western Hotel, by the red and white floatplane on the small dock out front (the governor's husband is a pilot in addition to being an oil worker, commercial fisherman, prior Iron Dog snowmobile endurance race winner, and self-anointed "First Dude").
Normal small-town life for the First Dude and his wife is over. Even as Governor, Palin was still spotted at the market, driving her SUV around town, or worshiping at the nondenominational Wasilla Bible Church. On Friday afternoon, I was able to just pick up the phone and call Palin's parents, who live in town. They had just heard the news Friday morning themselves; they had been out caribou hunting and gold mining how Alaska is that? so there wasn't any advance warning for them. Her mother Sally told me this before remembering that she's not allowed to talk to reporters now, that they've been told that they have to learn about the new protocol. She seems genuinely sorry about this. "We're very, very proud of her," she told me before hanging up.
And when Marty and Cheryl Metiva, a power couple in town (he's on city council, running for mayor, and she leads the Chamber of Commerce), take me up the Palin's driveway to look at the house, we are met by police officers in two Wasilla patrol cars, who then spend a while copying down our drivers license information. "We're on watch now, you bet," one of the officers said with a smile.
The governor's house is actually somewhat modest: a two-story wood shingled building with a couple hundred meters of road leading up to it. There are a few aging trucks parked on the grass alongside the road, alongside a couple trailers and a shack. There's a portable basketball hoop in the driveway. You can tell it's the governor's home because they've tacked a moose antler with PALIN painted on it to a tree out front.
It's a picture-perfect Alaskan family home. Palin, who hunts, fishes, and says her favorite food is moose, fits into this community snugly, in a way that many carpet-bagging national politicians can only dream of. And her friends here think the rest of America will fall for her just they way they have.
But Alaska is a deeply ... different state. It's more beautiful, more conservative, slightly rougher, though with a protection of privacy that will be hard for her to maintain in the spotlight. Her views, from opposing abortion even in cases of incest or rape to drilling in ANWR, are just more palatable here than in much of the lower 48.
Back at the State Fair, Hobo Jim finishes and starts signing CD's. "Sarah's awesome," he tells me. "We love her here."
The question is, will enough voters in the lower 48 feel the same way?