FAIRBANKS -- Gov. Sarah Palin, named almost two weeks ago as Republican presidential candidate John McCain's running mate, flew into Fairbanks on Wednesday night in her campaign jet and told a crowd of about 3,000 that she's spreading an Alaska message of oil drilling and reform on the trail.
"And everywhere we go they're chanting 'drill baby drill,' " Palin said to cheers of the crowd at a "Welcome Home" rally held in airplane hangar at the Fairbanks airport.
It's the first time Palin has returned to Alaska since McCain tapped her Aug. 28 to be their party's nominee for vice president. She has since become something of a rock star for the Republicans, drawing big, enthusiastic crowds across the nation despite essentially repeating, often verbatim, the highlights of her Republican National Convention Speech at each campaign stop.
Palin's campaign jet, a 100-seat Embraer 190 chartered from JetBlue and with McCain-Palin painted in big blue letters on the side, rolled right up to the hangar for the Fairbanks rally. The crowd waited anxiously for traveling campaign reporters and staffers to leave the jet before roaring its approval when Palin, her husband, Todd, daughters Willow and Piper, and baby son Trig, stepped off.
Palin spoke for only about 15 minutes. She repeated some lines from her convention speech but didn't attack Democratic nominee Barack Obama, as she did at the convention and in campaign stops across the nation. Palin also talked a lot about Alaska, getting some of her biggest applause when she brought up her plan to send every Alaskan $1,200 to help offset the high costs of energy. She said that's unheard of in other states.
"But we believed that you believed you could spend that money better than government could spend it for you," Palin said.
Palin also spent time touting McCain, who finished last, behind Ron Paul, among the four candidates running in Alaska's Republican presidential primary last spring. Many Alaska Republicans objected to the fact McCain, unlike Palin, opposes Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling.
"He's a friend to Alaska and he will be our next president," Palin said.
"What John McCain has noticed is Alaska has returned to the fundamental truth that government is not always the answer, government too often is the problem," Palin told the crowd.
Palin said she took on politics as usual in Alaska, and made the claim that the "old oil monopoly, undue influence there that had control of our state, it's broken. And the ethical standards that had led to closed doors and closed door dealings, self-interest, it's gone. Even the state's luxury jet, it's sold."
She said people around the nation are saying "thank you, thank you Alaska," when they hear about the natural gas pipeline from the North Slope. Palin pushed through a plan to give $500 million to a Canadian firm that is pursuing the gas pipeline project, but there is no guarantee it will be constructed.
At one point, minutes after her plane arrived and before she started to speak, a protester in the hangar held up a sign saying "Palin: per diem fraud." Alaska State Troopers subdued him and escorted him outside at the request of the rally's hosts, the state Republican Party.
People began waiting in line to get into the event six hours before Palin was to speak. Some brought collapsible chairs for the wait, then jog-ran into the hangar in pursuit of a good spot in front of the stage when the Secret Service finally let them in three hours before showtime.
"It's a historic moment. I want my daughter to see this," said Ronetta O'Connor of Fairbanks. "It is a thrill to see a woman in this position."
"She's a super amazing woman!" piped in her 8-year-old daughter, Mackenzie.
Mary Havens drove the six-plus hours from Anchorage for the rally. She was wearing a sweatshirt, homemade, with a picture of what's become a world famous scene of Palin's 7-year-old daughter, Piper, during Palin's speech last week at the Republican National Convention in Minnesota. It's the picture of Piper licking her palm and trying to smooth down the unruly hair of her baby brother, Trig. The caption on the shirt read: "Piper Got Her Lick In, How about You?
"We saw that precious moment and we knew somebody was going to become a star," Havens said.
Karla O'Donoghue of Fairbanks made a T-shirt for her daughter that said: "When I grow up I want to be just like Sarah."
"We are really excited," said O'Donoghue, who was a volunteer on Palin's campaign for governor. "She's easy to talk to, easy to approach and she has the same values as our family."
Not all Alaskans were so enthusiastic about Palin's homecoming.
More than two dozen Barack Obama supporters waved signs outside the Palin event. Several said they were inspired to show up by the state Republican Party's statement that only Palin supporters were encouraged to come to the rally.
Nina Harun of Fairbanks, holding a "Soccer Mom for Real Change" sign, said she would have voted for Palin again for governor. But the independent Palin that Alaskans knew, who worked with the Democrats to raise taxes on oil companies, has turned into a Republican attack machine, she said.
"I heard her speech at the (Republican) convention and I was really ashamed of the way she acted," Harun said. "The hockey moms I know don't insult people. They are just using her."
Before Palin joined the McCain ticket, her fiercest critics in Alaska were fellow Republicans. Some Fairbanks Republicans remain skeptical but are far more hesitant to criticize her now that she's the party's vice presidential nominee.
"It's dangerous up here to do any truth telling -- we all want to have a future and she's going to control the state for the next four years whether she's vice president or governor or senator or turning the wheels from home in Wasilla. I mean she's a powerful woman," Jay Ramras, a Republican state representative from Fairbanks, said in an interview earlier this week.
Ramras owns Pike's Waterfront Lodge -- just across the road from the Palin rally Wednesday night.
Ramras said it's appropriate to rally and celebrate the attention the state is getting for its issues as a result of Palin's nomination. That includes the argument, backed by Palin, for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Palin's "improbable rise as the American Idol of politics" helps, Ramras said.
"That's how I regard her is the American Idol of politics, I've never seen anything quite like it," Ramras said. "It's improbable. It's the most improbable thing that I have ever seen in my life and probably ever will. But God bless her."
The Republican mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Jim Whitaker, endorsed Obama before Palin joined the McCain ticket. Whitaker, who spoke in favor of Obama at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, did not respond to requests for an interview on Wednesday.
NEW YORK -- ABC says Charles Gibson's interviews with Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin will form the basis of a special prime-time edition of "20/20" tomorrow. Gibson is traveling to Fairbanks and Wasilla for the first TV interviews with Palin since she was selected as John McCain's running mate.
The Associated Press