Banquet displayed Palin hold on conservatives
Overflow crowd saw Sarah, not candidate
By Thomas B. Langhorne (Contact)
Sunday, April 19, 2009
It wasn’t supposed to be a political event, but try telling that to a man who has seen 2,200 people react when he walks into a banquet hall.
Sgt. Robert Goedde, a sheriff’s officer who was at Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s side throughout her 17-hour stay in Evansville, says Palin was besieged at Thursday’s Vanderburgh County Right to Life banquet by people urging her to run for president in 2012.
The exhortations, which Goedde called a constant refrain, began as soon as he and Palin and other officers began making their way to the banquet’s head table through surging crowds in The Centre’s assembly hall. The journey, during which Palin was mobbed by people seeking autographs and pictures, took 20 minutes.
“Some people would shout it out, and you’d see others just asking her,” Goedde said. “I heard it two or three times a minute, the entire time. She’d just smile and wave. She was very gracious.”
Palin’s appearance at the sold-out Right to Life banquet was her first major public event outside of Alaska since the 2008 presidential campaign, when she and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., were defeated.
Dr. W.R. Mack, a political scientist at the University of Southern Indiana, called it the first major event of the 2012 presidential campaign. Mack cited Palin’s criticism of Democratic President Barack Obama in Evansville on the abortion issue.
Mack said the key to understanding Palin’s appeal to social conservatives — a potent constituency in Republican presidential primaries — is her perceived sincerity and strength of conviction about their issues.
“In the past, maybe they felt like they were being used (by national Republicans),” Mack said. “John McCain was kind of a fake conservative to them. But with Palin, they think, ‘Here’s somebody who is really going to follow through.’”
Nick Hermann, chairman of the Vanderburgh County Republican Party, said Palin’s personal magnetism, which Mack likened to Obama’s, is also a key to her appeal.
The Right to Life banquet marked the fourth time Hermann has seen Palin in person, including the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., and two 2008 campaign speeches in Indiana.
“She has great stage presence, but she also works the crowd well,” Hermann said. “It’s unusual to have both. (Former GOP presidential candidate) Mike Huckabee, for instance, works the crowd well but doesn’t have the stage presence.”
As GOP national Chairman Michael Steele did at the Right to Life event, Hermann said it would be premature to label any prospective presidential candidate the early front-runner for the 2012 nomination.
Appeal an asset
But he said Palin has an “Every Woman” appeal and a personal authenticity that could prove to be considerable political assets on the road to 2012.
“The Right to Life banquet (at which Palin teared up over her baby son who was born with Down syndrome and spoke openly of her teenage daughter’s pregnancy) was the first time I’ve seen her really open up and talk about her story, her feelings,” he said. “Sometimes, politicians seem too perfect. She really connected with people.”
It was a sentiment expressed over and over again by people who met Palin while she was in Evansville, including several young servers at Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano who waited on the Alaska governor at Friday’s private breakfast event hosted by S.M.I.L.E. on Down syndrome.
“It didn’t even feel like you were in front of somebody that was famous,” said server Chrissy Heffernan. “It felt like you were in front of somebody that you’ve known forever. She was just very nice, very personable, very personable.”
Goedde, who headed up a detail of about 20 city and county law enforcement officers who volunteered or were compensated by Right to Life to guard Palin, said he made a point of watching the Alaska governor’s interactions with people.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to watch and see if there’s ever a sign that this is all a put-on,’” he said. “I never saw it. Never once did I see her say or do anything that made her look less than sincere, like rolling her eyes when no one was looking.
“She was just like a hometown girl from Evansville, Ind., coming home after making good.”
Goedde, a Right to Life board member, knows a little something about how to project oneself effectively as a candidate for office.
In 2006, he ran an insurgent campaign for the GOP nomination for Vanderburgh County sheriff, bucking the local party central committee’s endorsement of his opponent to win 70 percent of the vote in a primary.
Though he lost to Democrat Eric Williams in a general election year that saw few Republican victories, the 45-year-old Goedde is often asked by GOP leaders to seek office again.
Goedde marveled at Palin’s ability to remember the first names of people she met and to connect with each of the law enforcement officers who protected her.
“People looked up to her almost in a rock star way, but it was also with respect, not just ‘Oh, Sarah, Sarah,’” he said. “I don’t know any other way to say it, but this lady is the real deal.”
Palin made a similar impression on Nina Fuller, who shared a private breakfast with her and about a half-dozen other people Friday morning before the larger event at Biaggi’s.
“There was not a political word in the conversation,” said Fuller, executive director of S.M.I.L.E.
“Gov. Palin is now a good friend of mine, and her name is Sarah.”