Palin fans turn out in droves for autograph session

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A college student home for the weekend might expect a warm bed and a hot meal.

That had to wait for Addie Witt, who drove east Friday night from Ohio's Otterbein College to join her father, Kerry Witt, on a chilly parking lot sleepover next to the cinder block wall of a Sam's Club in Washington County.

Cocooned in a sleeping bag and folding chair, she was near the front of a crowd that would grow to more than 1,500 people who gathered to get a glimpse of and autograph from Sarah Palin, the former governor, current author, and past -- and perhaps future -- candidate for national office.

The father and daughter thought their cold night was worth it to boost their chances of being among those who would have Mrs. Palin autograph their copies of "Going Rogue," the memoir already soaring on best-seller lists in the first hours of a three-week 14-city book tour.

Mrs. Palin's appearance yesterday at the big box store in South Strabane came just a little more than a year after she had been introduced to Pennsylvanians at nearby Consol Energy Park, just after Sen. John McCain made her a national figure by choosing her as the Republican vice-presidential nominee. The patient but enthusiastic crowd outside Sam's Club attested to the endurance of the celebrity status that has only grown since that Labor Day weekend.

Mr. Witt, of Seven Springs, said he had been in line since 9:30 the previous evening.

"I like the views that she holds," said Mr. Witt, who said he hoped the former governor of Alaska would run for president. "We need another change in 2012. The first change wasn't good."

Farther back in the cheerful, if chilled throng was Joe Dicks, his wife Paula, and their children Katelyn, 16, a student at Trinity High School, and son, Caleb, 12, who attends Faith Christian School.

"We like her views on politics, on life in general," said Mr. Dicks.

At another point in the line, Ken Beachy, of Jefferson Hills, stood waiting for his wife, Martha, who had entered the club to buy a membership -- a requirement for those hoping to obtain the gubernatorial signature.

"I just relate to her more than to some of the other politicians," he said, noting that his affinity was reinforced by the fact that Alaska was his favorite state and that of his wife.

Hearing that, Mary Wichterman, a retired teacher next to them in line, displayed her fleece, worn in the signer's honor, embroidered with the logo, "Alaska."

Still farther back in the line was Peg Luksik, a U.S. Senate candidate who was taking a break from her own campaigning to attend the Palin event.

Mrs. Luksik, a former candidate for governor, is running against Pat Toomey, a former congressman, for the GOP nomination for the seat held by Sen. Arlen Specter. Her stop in Washington County was a break from an appearance Friday night in Scranton and anther last night in Greensburg.

Books, not news, were the order of the day for Mrs. Palin as her aides carefully insulated her from reporters. Her appearance lasted a little more than three hours before she and the brightly decorated bus that proclaims her book, Web site and Twitter account made its exit.

She sat at a table inside the store, signing book after book with a Sharpie pen while exchanging small talk with members of the crowd.

Leann Marcolini, of Fredericktown, Washington County, beamed as she left the store with a copy of the book, newly inscribed with Mrs. Palin's big, swirling signature. With her sister, Amy Jo Brown, also of Fredericktown, she had waited in line since 11:30 p.m. Friday.

Was it worth it?

"Absolutely," Ms. Marcolini said.

"I told her it was an honor to meet her. She said 'It's an honor to meet you.' "

Ms. Marcolini said that when her sister told the author that she was a first grade teacher, Mrs. Palin replied, "You have the patience of Job; God bless you."

Sales like those are propelling the autobiography to the top of best-seller lists. Its publisher, HarperCollins, announced Friday that its first-day sales had topped 300,000 and its initial press run had been increased to 2.5 million, up from an initial plan of 1.5 million copies.

The Sam's Club support yesterday was symbolic of a corner of the state that proved a strong ally for the McCain-Palin ticket. While President Barack Obama was carrying Pennsylvania overall by a near landslide margin last year, the Republican team managed to prevail in Washington County -- reversing its Democratic majority in the previous election -- along with neighboring Fayette and Greene counties.

Nationally, Mrs. Palin is near the top of presidential preference surveys among Republicans. In a recent Gallup Poll, she trailed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

But she remains a polarizing figure among the broader electorate. A Gallup Poll's recent look at the public's favorable/unfavorable views of political figures show that the celebrity status that was on display yesterday exists alongside the highest unfavorable ratings among all voters of any of her potential Republican rivals for the top spot in 2012.

The former governor's appearance was one more example of the popularity and commercial appeal of conservative figures across the country.

Fox television commentator Glenn Beck was opening his own book tour with a Florida rally yesterday. Mr. Huckabee appeared Thursday night on the South Side, signing copies of his recently published book of Christmas stories. His appearance earlier in the month at Christ Church at Grove Farm in Ohio Township almost doubled the congregation of the church.

Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at or 412-263-1562.


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