‘First dude’ makes Maine stops

Posted Oct. 12, 2008, at 9:22 p.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Steve Turner couldn’t meet Todd Palin’s Sarah, but he made sure that Palin met his.

“Hey, I’ve got a Sarah, too,” Turner called to the husband of Alaska Gov. and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin during Todd Palin’s stop in town at noon Sunday. “How about a picture with my Sarah?”

“Sure,” Todd Palin said, smiling, as 2½-year-old Sarah Turner was hauled into the picture by her dad.

Palin’s brief stop at Harry’s Motor Sports on Main Street echoed his other stops at Dysart’s Restaurant and truck stop in Hermon on Sunday and Moosehead Trading Post in Palmyra on Saturday — no big speeches, no press interviews, just Alaska’s “First dude” impressing people with his considerable affability and low-key charm as he posed for pictures and signed autographs.

“He’s not a politician, which is refreshing,” Turner said. “You can tell that he’s not been in this game too long. He was not rehearsed, just very accessible and accommodating.”

“He’s very friendly, down-to-earth, and he’s very well put together,” said Simone Levesque, 58, of Caribou. “A little hunky, yeah, handsome. He’s the No. 1 dude in Alaska. I didn’t want to call him that, but he thought it was cool.”

Political observers believe GOP presidential candidate John McCain and Sarah Palin have a chance to win the state’s electoral vote from Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Todd Palin’s visit to central and northern Maine was designed to take advantage of that possibility.

A retinue of Secret Service agents, local politicians and candidates and handlers accompanied Palin or met him briefly in his swing through Maine, the first by anyone affiliated with the Democratic or Republican presidential tickets.

“It gets a crowd and it gets media attention,” said John Frary, who accompanied Palin on Sunday as the GOP candidate opposing incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud in the 2nd District. “It gives the faithful that spark of enthusiasm that is helpful.

“I told him to give her a message from me,” Frary added. “I told him to tell her that if she ever gets a hankering for someone older, a little fatter and more decrepit, she should look me up. He promised he would, but he did not look too sincere.”

Frary and Palin did not talk politics during their brief time together, Frary said.

“That’s not his function,” Frary said. “The First dude? His function is surrogate, the man who stands behind the woman. Considering the avalanche of abuse she generates, she needs a little support.”

Susan Collins, 34, of Mapleton and Jaime Tardif, 30, of Castle Hill hoped Palin’s visit would generate good things for Aroostook County. Collins said she is no relation to the senator of the same name.

Turner predicted the visit would do good for the McCain-Palin campaign.

“There are a lot of values voters up this way, and his presence here might be worth one delegate [to the Electoral College]. That could be big in a race that is this close at this point,” Turner said. “And what better guy to have up here than a guy that hunts moose [and] drives snowmobile equipment?”

Earlier Sunday, Palin, surrounded by his Secret Service detail, campaign staff and local Republican politicians, moved from table to table at Dysart’s Restaurant and truck stop and in Hermon to greet breakfast diners.

One of the diners, Brittany Ginn, forgot to ask him the question she’d most like his wife to answer: What will you do for the troops?

The fact that Ginn of Winterport wasn’t thinking about national politics when Palin stopped by Dysart’s for breakfast and some handshaking is understandable.

Ginn was getting married Sunday afternoon to Marine Lance Cpl. William Shibles. The bride and her four attendants gathered for breakfast at the popular eatery before heading to a Bangor event center where the wedding was to be held.

“I wanted to ask him, ‘What will your wife and [John] McCain do for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?’” Ginn said. “Depending on the answer, I might change how I’m going to vote.”

Ginn’s husband-to-be has completed a tour in Iraq and is headed for Afghanistan. The wedding date had to be changed from Oct. 5 to Sunday because Shibles’ training schedule wouldn’t allow him to take leave time earlier in the month.

“I’m going to vote for Barack [Obama],” she said. “I’ve watched every single debate. I don’t like McCain, and I don’t like his plan for the troops. I don’t like Biden, either. If Sarah were running instead of McCain, if they were to switch, it would be perfect.”

Ed Bilecki and Becky Bunter, both of Hampden, are McCain-Palin supporters. They came for breakfast with their three children knowing Todd Palin was going to stop by.

“I think they are more on our level,” Bilecki said of the Republican ticket. “They have the average person’s moral values.”

On Saturday afternoon, Todd Palin received an enthusiastic welcome to the Pine Tree State at the Moosehead Trading Post in Palmyra.

He apparently prefers the “First dude” moniker, as many of the women in the estimated crowd of 500 that filled the trading post’s parking lot in anticipation of pallin’ around with Palin were wearing pink sweat shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Maine’s 2nd District welcomes Alaska’s 1st dude.”

Palin wasn’t on hand to give a formal political speech, but he did say a few words about his wife and McCain before wading into the crowd to shake hands and sign autographs.

“It’s great to be in Maine,” Palin told the cheering crowd in Palmyra. “It reminds me a lot of Alaska, but you’ve got more colors in your leaves than we do.”

He said that when it came to getting results, his wife and McCain “can point to their record, unlike others who can’t point to their record.”

Palin received another loud cheer when he reminded the gathering that the McCain-Palin ticket had received the endorsement of the National Rifle Association.

“Sarah and I are very active outdoors hunting, and it’s a great endorsement,” he said.

Reacting to the crowd’s support, Palin added: “Just from the looks of you, you guys are excited about this race.”

The crowd was an even mix of men and women and included youngsters in strollers and seniors in wheelchairs. Parked cars stretched for more than a mile along Oxbow Road in front of the trading post as people of all ages took advantage of the beautiful fall day and the free hot dogs, hamburgers, potato chips, apples and cold drinks at the event.

Free food aside, most of those who attended the rally said they were compelled to show up because of their belief in the McCain-Palin message.

“He spent five and one-half years in a prison camp in Hanoi,” Korean War Army veteran Bob Lucas of Dexter said of McCain. “He deserves this. I don’t have to say any more.”

Christine Mathies of Hartland said she supported McCain because “I think he’s somebody [who] will protect our country. I just believe he’s the right man for the job. Keeping our country strong is important to me. Keeping it strong and not socialistic.”

There also was a small group of protesters at the rally, including Katrina Bisheimer of Bucksport, who was ordered off the property by sheriff’s deputies when she attempted to walk through the crowd carrying a sign reading “Women and Polar Bears against Palin” and “Freedom for Women and Polar Bears.”

“Another view should be allowed to be expressed,” she said as a deputy led her to the perimeter of the property.

Palin’s appearance in Maine came just a few hours after the Alaska Legislature released a report on his wife’s activities involving attempts to fire state trooper Michael Wooton, who had been involved in a messy divorce with Palin’s sister. The report found that Palin abused the powers of her office by pressuring those working for her to fire her former brother-in-law.

When Maine Republican Party spokeswoman Jennifer Webber was asked if Todd Palin would respond to the investigative report, she referred reporters to a statement issued by the campaign claiming that “the governor acted within her proper and lawful authority” and that the inquiry was led by supporters of Barack Obama and that the Palins were “completely justified” in their concerns about trooper Wooton.

“I’m not surprised that he won’t talk to the press,” observed Doug Hufnagel of Belfast. “It seems to be a family trait, fending off the press.”

In response to Palin’s visit, Obama’s campaign office in Maine released a statement from Brent Mullis of Corinna, a member of Maine Farmers for Obama.

“The hardworking men and women who protect our community, work our land and teach our children are bearing the brunt of eight years of failed Bush-McCain economic policies,” he said. “They deserve a president who will stand up for them. Barack Obama is a steady leader who will get our economy back on track and put hardworking Americans first. He will make real change happen for Maine families at this critical time.”

Judy Harrison and Walter Griffin of the BDN staff contributed to this report.

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