LANCASTER, Pa.—The line to see Sarah Palin is the longest I have ever seen this side of security at JFK Airport. It starts at the front door of the Franklin & Marshall College gym; goes out to Harrisburg Pik;, turns right and heads all the way down the block, almost to Wendy's; then turns right again and snakes through the parking lot, doubling back on itself so many times that people standing in the line are actually heckling those of us who are still searching for its end. "You're not there yet!" someone cracks when I sidle into a gap that I'd mistaken for the end.
I eventually find the end of the line and fall into conversation with the family that slides right in behind me: an auto parts dealer with his wife and two young kids. They drove an hour from Wilmington, Del., despite not having tickets. Like most of the crowd, they're not here to see John McCain. They're here for Sarah.
So is the guy with the "Taxpayers for Palin" sign, the young women with the "You Go Girl" signs, and the many "Kids for Sarah Palin." More than a few moms are sporting some variant of the Palin look, with their new icon's boxy glasses and piled-up 'do. They contrast oddly with the Amish men in beards and straw hats who also dot the line. Someone asks the question everyone is thinking: "I wonder if this many people would have shown up just for John McCain?"
Good question. Lancaster County, Pa., might well be described as the base of the Republican base. Megachurches dot the landscape, but the original Amish and Mennonite and Church of the Brethren settlers (whose descendants are still going strong) make the Wasilla Assembly of God seem socially liberal. SUVs share the road with horse-drawn buggies, McMansion developments rub shoulders with Plain People farms not served by electricity, and they vote in overwhelming numbers for Rep. Joe Pitts, who chairs something called the "Values Action Team," which is basically the congressional wing of James Dobson's Focus on the Family.
But just a few weeks ago, you didn't see a whole lot of McCain signs around. And by and large, this is Sarah's crowd. She's the reason the two middle-aged ladies near me, members of a local symphony, called in sick to work today (which, in turn, is why they shoo away a TV reporter). There's a tiny gaggle of protesters, maybe half a dozen, preaching to the unconvertible. And as the 3:30 p.m. start time draws near, it's beginning to look like we might get stuck out here listening to them.
Soon enough a staffer delivers the Straight Talk: We're hosed. The fire marshals have said no more people can be allowed into the gym. Everyone sort of sags, and begins the long trudge over to the Auxiliary Viewing Area, where a JumboTron has been set up. Unfortunately, it's partly blocked by a fire engine and an ambulance, and a wall of Secret Service.