Thousands of people turned out for Gov. Sarah Palin's Anchorage farewell picnic on Saturday, many to seek autographs and to show their love for her, others just because it was a chance for free food.
Palin received the rock star treatment on the Delaney Park Strip, if not quite as passionately as she did at the picnic the night before in her hometown of Wasilla. The crowd pressed forward to snap cell phone pictures of Alaska's celebrity governor and get her to sign something, anything. People presented Palin with books to sign, posters, crumpled wads of paper from their pockets.
Palin took the stage but spoke for only about two minutes, mostly to thank the picnic sponsors and the crowd.
"I hope to get to shake as many hands as possible and tell you from the bottom of my heart how much I thank you and love you and I say God bless Alaska, God bless America, thank you," she said.
Several in the crowd chanted "Sarah, Sarah, Sarah," as she finished. "You did a great job!" someone yelled. It was Palin's final Anchorage appearance as governor of Alaska. She'll resign today after the governor's picnic in Fairbanks, and Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell will take the rest of her term.
Except for short periods before and after the picnic, where Palin signed autographs as grim-faced security surrounded her, the only chance to get close to Palin was by waiting in one of the food lines stretching out the Delaney Park Strip and down the block. More than 400 people waited in each of the two major lines at one point, and it took between and hour and two hours to get to the front, meet Palin, and get some food. But it was well worth it, said Palin's supporters.
John Rowland said he "came all the way from San Antone," took a cruise to Alaska and wanted nothing than more than to meet Sarah Palin. She is honest, he said, someone people can relate to.
"Would be a great ticket, her and Newt Gingrich," he said.
Alaskan supporters of Palin came out as well, like Lora Reinbold of Eagle River. "She's hard working, trying to do her best, and took a lot of bullets from the press that I think are completely unjustified," she said.
Many Palin backers at the picnic said they love the governor but were saddened and disappointed that she is resigning with 16 months left in her term. Several, like Reinbold and Karen Harold of Anchorage, said they understood and hoped Palin would go on to do more good work.
"I just hope that she runs for president," said Harold, who felt attacks on Palin were costly to the state.
Other Palin backers, like John Samuelson of Anchorage, didn't really understand why she's leaving. "She's got her rights and reasons," he said.
"I came out here to give a little support where I can," he said.
MORE FESTIVAL THAN POLITICS
The picnic drew all ages and walks of life. Homeless lined up for free hot dogs, young couples pushed baby strollers, elderly tourists ambled in to see what was going on. It was a cultural cross section of Anchorage, with whites, blacks, Natives, Pacific Islanders and Asians on the park strip.
Cassidy Fuavai, 21, said he was there because "everybody was coming." He didn't have an opinion on Palin.
Phoebe Maurer and LB Abbey, also in their 20s, said they live near the Park Strip and wanted to see the picnic, have some free food. Maurer said Palin can't be expected to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate after quitting her job as governor. Abbey said he thinks Palin is a "moron" who has been kind of embarrassing for Alaska.
There wasn't any organized protest against Palin at the picnic, although at least a couple of the bloggers who have battled with her came to the event. Shannyn Moore, whom Palin's lawyer threatened to sue, said she came to the farewell picnic after receiving an anonymous e-mail saying she should wear a bullet-proof vest if she did. "Today is a great day for Alaska and Alaskans," she said.
Mostly it was more like a summer festival than a political event. An Air Force band belted out "She's a Brick House" by the Commodores, while teenagers played hacky sack, a tae kwon do group gave demonstrations, people admired vintage cars, and a group of gun-rights activists surveyed the Park Strip scene with sidearms on their hips.
An entrepreneur strolled through the crowd with a pro-Palin T-shirt dangling from a fishing pole, hawking pictures of the governor to autograph seekers. Kids, including Palin's daughter, Piper, got their hair sprayed with wild colors inside a tent.
THE FAMOUS LADY
Palin herself served up salmon burgers with her right hand and shook hands with her left, offering up thanks and a smile, not seeming to tire as the crowds kept coming for three hours.
Security was tight, with state troopers, Anchorage police and volunteers blocking out people not receiving food from even getting close to the burger-slinging governor. "People can't get their condiments!" a trooper yelled as the crowd started to block the offerings of ketchup, mustard and horseradish.
One mother, approaching Palin, told her child, "Look, that's the lady you've seen on television."
Diane Houston of Anchorage said her granddaughter really wanted to meet Palin, and had a notebook for her to sign. Houston said she has mixed feelings about the resignation, but knows Palin had her family and the costs to think about.
"I like her values, her morals and how she stands her ground," Houston said.
The rain was coming down hard by the time Palin signed a last few autographs. She walked with purple-haired Piper to her government sport-utility vehicle, waved, mouthed a final thanks and drove away, soon to be Alaska's most famous ex-governor.
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.
By SEAN COCKERHAM