WASILLA — Thousands showed up Friday for Gov. Sarah Palin’s annual picnic held in her hometown of Wasilla.
Palin, who is resigning and leaves office on Sunday, used the occasion, one of a series of picnics she is hosting this weekend, to sign autographs and hand out hot dogs.
The governor — dressed in blue jeans and a red New England Patriots sweatshirt — was mobbed by well-wishers who offered up babies, books, calendars, skateboards and even their hands for autographs. Several longtime picnic-goers said this year’s picnic crowd dwarfed last year’s.
Event coordinators planned for about 5,000 attendees. They roasted 4,008 hot dogs and had fixings for about 4,000 root-beer floats.
By the last hour of the event, the dogs were almost gone.
The picnics, which have become more popular in Wasilla since Palin was elected as governor, have previously drawn as many as 2,000 people.
Wasilla Chamber director Lyn Carden said she fielded calls this week from numerous out-of-state travelers who changed their plans to attend in hopes of meeting Palin. Some were interested in one-on-one time with the governor. Others wanted to know if they could buy mementos — such as a lock of Palin’s hair — at the event, organizer Lyn Carden said.
Kealoha Torres, who lives in Wasilla near the park, boosted his 6-year-old daughter, Leina, to his shoulders to get a good photo of Palin handing out hot dogs over the crush of people around the food tent. He said his family members from Washington state were risking missing their flight home to see Palin.
“They don’t care; they want to see her,” Torres said. “She has a lot of supporters in Washington.”
Fred Kostrick, an 84-year-old World War II veteran from Michigan who attended the event, said he appreciated Palin’s support of the military. “I think she’s one hell of a lady,” he said. “She’s tough, she stands her ground and she’s taken a lot of guff — more than I could.”
Some in the audience were there to catch a glimpse of Palin in her role as a national celebrity more than to support her political views.
Ozzy Cruz from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and a New York City resident who gave his name only as “Tom,” traded a camera back and forth, trying to snap photos of each other near Palin.
The two men had traveled down for the day from Talkeetna after hearing about the picnic. Dodging a question about whether they agreed with Palin’s politics, the two men said they found her “fascinating.”
Others, such as Wes Hamrick, relayed his admiration for the governor and his dreams for the future in song.
“In 2012, I’ll give you a hint. Alaska’s pit bull will be our president,” he sang in a tune titled “North to the Future.”
At the end of the song, the Big Lake resident shouted: “Sarah Palin for president!”
A teenage boy replied as loudly, “Obama!”
During the picnic, Palin said she was glad to be in front of her hometown as she kicked off a trio of picnics before she leaves office.
“This is my last time to speak to the Valley community as your governor,” she said. “I appreciate the support you have shown me and my family. I love you, and God Bless America.”
Another picnic will be held in Anchorage today and the third is scheduled for Sunday in Fairbanks, when Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell takes over as governor.
Palin chastised the media for sometimes ignoring those who defend freedom, telling the crowd that she had attended a memorial service for three soldiers from Alaska a day earlier. Her son, Track, is currently serving in Iraq.
“Never apologize for being American,” she told the crowd in Wasilla, a city of about 10,000.
A man yelled out, “We want you to be our commander in chief!”
Palin has not said what she will do after she leaves office, but many have speculated that she will run for president in 2012.
The governor left the event without taking questions from the media, driving off in a blue SUV with her daughter Piper.
Daily News reporter Rindi White and Associated Press reporter Matthew Daly contributed to this story. White can be reached online at adn.com/contact/rwhite or at 352-6709.