Sarah Palin's rally Monday in Fredericksburg, Va., began with a prayer. "Thank you for all you have given us," intoned Susan Stimpson, chairwoman of the county Republican Party. If she had really wanted to help, though, she would have prayed the polls are wrong.
A new Washington Post/ABC poll released Monday put Barack Obama up eight points in Virginia, one for every day left in the election. His advantage is even stronger in Northern Virginia, where he outpolls McCain 2-to-1. In the southwest, which a McCain adviser recently called "real Virginia," McCain is still leading. He's also up among veterans and people who go to church at least once a week. But overall, the state looks dangerously close to seceding—this time from the South.
You wouldn't know it from McCain's schedule. He and Palin have logged a total of four visits to Virginia in the last month. Three of them happened yesterday—first in the Washington exurb of Leesburg (enemy territory, according to the polls), then in the northern-ish town of Fredericksburg ("Don't call us north," pleaded a McCain supporter. "Please don't call us north"), and finally Salem, a town of 24,000 southwest of Richmond. And it wasn't McCain doing the visiting—it was Palin, solo.
It's no surprise the McCain campaign dispatched Palin, rather than McCain himself, to woo Virginia. She's been attracting bigger crowds—Fredericksburg drew an estimated 6,000 to the outdoor Hurkamp Park, and at least 10,000 people filled the Salem Civic Center, home of the Salem Avalanche. She's also better-suited to execute the strategy that's most likely to save McCain. The state's blueward swing owes much to demographic shifts, as immigrants and yuppies swell Northern Virginia's exurbs. Nor can McCain hope to match Obama's organization. The campaign's Hail Mary strategy, therefore, appears to be based on mobilizing the conservative base.
Palin has enthusiastically risen to the task. Her message on Monday was the usual folksy populism on steroids. Obama won't just raise your taxes, he's a socialist. He's not just unready to be commander in chief, he'll invite an attack. He doesn't just have bad ideas about Iraq, he never uses the word "victory." "Joe the Plumber" made an appearance in Palin's speech; Tito the Builder, the newest member of the campaign's middle-class everyman super team (which, with "Rose the Teacher," "Doug the Barber," and "Cindy the Citizen," is starting to sound a lot like a commune) was there in person. Palin's folksy one-offs have now been seared into her teleprompters: At two events, she said Obama was "just kinda flip-floppin' around there" on taxes. (If that wasn't enough, there were bails of hay lining the stage in Fredericksburg.) And she touched on the messy stuff: "It is not mean-spirited or negative campaigning to call someone out on their record, on their plans and their associations."
She's also what political nerds might call a "validator" for McCain—she lets people know it's OK to vote for him. Just as white union leaders make their members feel more comfortable with Obama, so Palin makes religious conservatives more comfortable with McCain. She also validates their doubts—which, at this stage of the campaign, are mostly about the polls. Palin dismissed the media and Democrats who say Obama has the race locked up. "I'll tell you something about polls," said state Sen. Richard Stuart as he warmed up the Fredericksburg crowd. He described how he was down in the polls a week before Election Day and still won. I heard someone else posit the theory that pollsters poll only Democrats, so of course Obama is winning. One voter, Lori Haimel of Boones Mill, assured me that polls are wrong because they rely on home landlines during the day, while professionals are at work.
There are plenty of reasons to doubt polls, and this election has enough X-factors—race and turnout among them—to justify healthy second-guessing. But there's a difference between skepticism and denial. Obama has been surging not just in Virginia but everywhere, thanks largely to the flagging economy. And it's pretty clear that the Republican leadership believes the polls: The RNC is now buying ad time in Montana and West Virginia.
Luckily for Palin, this denial is accompanied by enthusiasm—both positive and negative. The negative energy, which seems to fuse with evangelical fervor, is directed at Obama. Deborah Cleaveland, decked in fur and leopard-print gloves and flanked by her grandchildren, carried a sign to the rally in Salem with a line from Proverbs: "When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people mourn." She doesn't think Obama is the Antichrist, she told me. But there's a decent chance he's a prophet sent to announce the coming of the Antichrist. As for why God would allow Obama to get elected, "He may be drawing things to an end."
Campaign officials tend not to dwell on End Times for practical as well as symbolic reasons. "Morale is good," said Tyler Brown, a McCain spokesman in Virginia. "We're gonna keep fighting it out." I believe him. When Palin's motorcade breezed by the football stadium in Salem, the crowd screamed. One fan shook a sign: "Why vote for Sarah? Because she's one of us!" When Palin stood under the giant field lights, the crowd chanting her name, fans in the stands wearing coordinated colors to spell out "USA," I couldn't help but think we'd suddenly fast-forwarded to 2012.