Page last updated at 08:02 GMT, Thursday, 19 November 2009

Hurricane Palin rolls into town

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Grand Rapids Michigan

Sarah Palin

Whatever happens in American politics in the course of the next three years, we will remember this as the day when Hurricane Palin blew through the normally placid streets of Grand Rapids Michigan.

And there are plenty of supporters of Sarah Palin who are hoping we will look back on it as the day when the opening shots of Campaign 2012 were fired.

Officially of course, it was merely the start of the promotional tour for Sarah Palin's memoir Going Rogue - a curious volume which manages to combine folksy recollections of childhood with some pointed score-settling aimed at the hapless spin-doctors who "handled" her during her failed run for the vice-presidency.

But it felt like something much more.

Adoring fans

Not just an early premonition of what a Palin Primary rally might look like in 2012 either - this was one of America's major political players reconnecting with the base which she energises and which in turn energises her.

American history may be littered with politicians who have run more successful campaigns than Mrs Palin and there are certainly plenty who have written better books - but there is something special in the connection between Alaska's former governor and the base which adores her.

The line of a couple of thousand supporters waiting to have her sign their copy of "Going Rogue" snaked up and down the spacious corridors of the Woodland Mall past the premises of such homely businesses as the Red Robin Diner and the Cosmic Candy Company.

They are all perfectly well aware of course that most politicians and pundits in what they call the "liberal elite media" tend to despise Mrs Palin for her lack of political sophistication, her folksiness and her apparently sketchy grasp of how the wider world works.

Teenage fans of Ms Palin
Sarah Palin's fan base includes teenagers

And they do not care - indeed they love her for it.

For them she is the underdog endlessly picked on by sneering commentators on mainstream television and in the big city newspapers.

Local business consultant Mike Crane who was waiting somewhere near the head of the line explained it to me.

"She's one of us," he said simply. "We're hard-working, 9-to-5 Joes and like her we didn't go to the elite universities that other politicians went to. She understands real life and she understands America."

And the America she understands came out in force to greet her in Grand Rapids - one or two women in the crowd knitted placidly as they waited anywhere between 10 and 15 hours for a few seconds of one-on-one time with their heroine.

Several wore "Palin For President" badges. One man sported a T-shirt with a quote from Jefferson about the importance of keeping government small.

There were more women than men, and more people over 45 than under it. The oldest Palinite I met was 82 (she was taking advantage of a massage chair which was for sale in a shop beside the bookstore where Mrs Palin appeared) and the youngest was around 10.

"She's cool," he informed me simply. "Write that down."

She's shown me that I can achieve anything, and be anything I want to be
Nichole Perrine

At the very head of the line we found a group of local teenagers who had waited overnight to make sure they were first to be ushered into the governor's presence.

They must have passed a rather eerie night in the deserted mall with the Christmas decorations winking silently down on them from the high, dark ceilings above.

It was, they assured me, well worth it.

One of them, Nichole Perrine, said Mrs Palin was her hero.

"She's shown me that I can achieve anything, and be anything I want to be," she told me… a characteristic you often hear attributed to Barack Obama, interestingly enough.

When I asked Laura Lomik what she planned to say to Mrs Palin she said: "I'm going to ask her to please run for president in 2012."

When I caught up with the two 19-year-olds afterwards they insisted their brief meetings with the governor had been well worth the wait - there is a kind of magic about her, they confirmed - but they got no further than Oprah Winfrey or Barbara Walters in discovering whether Mrs Palin still has presidential ambitions.

So, let's consider the evidence.

Mrs Palin's book is a little light on ideology and big ideas but that probably does not matter very much in modern America where politicians run on their life stories and their ability to relate it to the lives of voters.

Queues for Ms Palin's book signing
Thousands of people queued up to see Ms Palin

It worked for Barack Obama (although he did throw in a bit of ideology) so there is no reason why it should not work for Sarah Palin.

The book tour too looks a little like a campaign swing - running as it does through key marginal areas, regions of high unemployment and a couple of places (like this bit of Michigan) where any credible Republican contender for the presidency will have to do pretty well.

She is a little coy on the matter herself, but then these are early days and so is everyone else.

She talks of working to support other conservative candidates for office in the 2010 mid-terms when Republicans might do rather well.

And of course as she points out, you can serve the public without holding public office.

Powerful force

Mrs Palin made sure for example that her voice was heard in the national debate on health care - she it was who started the debate over whether or not government rationing of medical budgets might lead to the appointment of "Death Panels".

That startling claim had the White House on the back foot this summer and helped raise conservative morale.

But the most compelling evidence of all that there is plenty more to come from Sarah Palin was in the nature of the crowd she drew here.

Her followers do not merely agree with her, they love her and, while she may alienate other Americans in equal or greater numbers, that makes her a force to be reckoned with.

Whatever other American politicians may say about her, however hard she may be for foreigners to understand and regardless of the pundits, any rival candidate looking at the crowds in Grand Rapids - and the crowds to come - will be envious. And perhaps a little worried.

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