Columbia, S.C. -- South Carolina is one of the first states on the 2012 presidential primary calendar. On Friday, it was the last stop in Sarah Palin's book tour. Mere coincidence?
Barbara Cauthen hopes not. "I would vote for her five times if I could," she said. Cauthen, 63, of Camden, S.C., was smiling even though she had just gotten laid off from her job as a process server. She already has other job offers. But the mother of four, grandmother of 10, great-grandmother of two just wanted to talk about Sarah Palin. "She's a down-to-earth person," she said. "She has a child with Down syndrome, and still has her upbeatness. She's an inspiration to all women."
Cauthen clutched her copy of "America by Heart
: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag," waiting for a quick word and a signature from the former Alaska governor, Republican vice presidential candidate and -- perhaps -- candidate for the country's top office next time around.
She already nearly has the security of a head of state. Some of the hundreds who waited in line had camped out days earlier for the chance for one of 500 wristbands that -- with a book receipt -- granted access to Palin's appearance at the Books-A-Million store. I missed the media sweep three hours before Palin's arrival that allowed journalists a glimpse but no interview opportunities, but her supporters were eager to fill me in.
Four generations of one family got to meet Palin. There was Shonda Kletzke, a stay-at-home Columbia mother of four, thrilled that Palin asked the name and age of the sleepy youngest she carried in her arms. Little Joseph managed to hold up three fingers, according to his mom. Palin shares her belief that America "was founded on freedom of religion, and that religion was toward God," said Kletzke. Her mother, Sandra Moore, a retired hairdresser from Ware Shoals, S.C., said Palin "seems real." Moore's dad, 80-year-old Melvin Morrell, showed me where Palin wrote his name in the book in bold, black script.
Elise Bidwell, a 39-year-old financial adviser from Columbia, was touched by the special inscription written for her father who, she told Palin, is fighting cancer.
After their brief moments with Palin, people used the words "honest" and "eye contact." The personal connection was one that I first saw at the national tea party convention, when a man toted a huge poster of Palin as though it were a snapshot.
Susanne Bacchetta of Lugoff, S.C., said the first time she saw Palin on television with John McCain "I shot straight out of my chair. I've been listening to her ever since." (She later e-mailed me to say that "meeting her in person was one of the most memorable events I have ever had the opportunity to witness.") Bacchetta, 74, said, "When you hear the negativity" about her, "it's because people are afraid of her." Like several others, she wore a pin pairing an image of Palin with Ronald Reagan and the slogan "A Vote for Conservatism."
How quickly the personal turns political.
In her book, Palin mixes it up with personal and policy attacks on President Obama, preparing a road map, speculated The New York Times
, on how a national campaign might operate. On Friday, as they stood in the chilly South Carolina night, her supporters eagerly jumped into the fight.
"I don't like his socialist attitude," Charles Leach of Fort Jackson, S.C., said of the president. Leach, 57, a supply technician at the Army training center, ran through a list of issues from "socialized medicine" to "cap and trade." Palin's decision to step down as Alaska's governor doesn't bother him; it freed her to "to serve the country at a higher level," Leach said. He believes she can solve America's "illegal alien problem" and "spending problem."
Not all her supporters are sure Sarah Palin's the one for the Oval Office, with many saying they would like to see a lot of candidates before they decide. But they do want to read what she has to say in her latest, which is No. 2 on The New York Times best-seller list
to George W. Bush's "Decision Points." (If you missed the tour, a $100 donation to Palin's political action committee
will get you a signed copy.)
Until the next book event, reality show
or family appearance on a dancing extravaganza
, Palin knows how to stay in the limelight, even dropping hints about what's next, despite her distaste for the media. When CNN
asked about a possible return to politically pivotal South Carolina, she said: "I don't know. We'll try and get back here soon."
With one of her anointed -- Nikki Haley -- as the new governor, Palin will surely get a warm welcome.