RALEIGH, N.C. — There's a moment during each of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's stump speeches when the Republican vice presidential candidate utters the "S" word, the one word that can fire up crowds almost as much as her favorite chant, "drill, baby, drill."
The word is "socialism." And as Palin has made her way across the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina for Republican John McCain in the final days of the presidential campaign, she has used the word to stir fear that a vote for Democratic Barack Obama is a vote for higher taxes. Or even worse, Palin warns in her stump speeches, a vote for Obama means "spreading your wealth."
"Now is not the time to experiment with that," Palin told voters in Latrobe, Pa., on Friday. "They do that in other countries where people are not free and where work ethic is not rewarded. And when an entrepreneurial spirit is absolutely stifled. And that's exactly what his plan will do to Americans and to the children who we are trying to teach work ethic and the reward for hard work."
It's an argument that resonates with many of the voters at her rallies, especially the working class Republican men whom Palin attracts in droves. Palin makes much of "Joe the Plumber" in her stump speech, a reference to the Ohio man whose assertion at an Obama campaign event that the Democratic candidate's tax plan smacked of socialism, who has become such a part of the McCain-Pain campaign that volunteers pass out oval-shaped "Joe" stickers at rallies.
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If Republicans are successful on Tuesday, Palin will have had something to do with landing the votes of those so-called "average Joes" across America.
In Florida on Saturday, one such Joe was "Corey the Electrician," otherwise known as Corey Mullis of Lake Wales, Fla. Mullis, 34, was carrying a sign at a rally in Polk City, Fla., printed with the phrase: "Hi Sarah, Corey the Electrician. We can't afford Obama's change." The "c" in "change" was in the shape of a hammer and sickle, the symbol of the Soviet Union.
"Taxes are a huge issue," said Mullis, who helps run an electrical business and calls Obama's tax plan "socialistic." "I don't believe in taking money out of my pocket just because I've got an education and I work hard at my job. I paid my dues. And to sit there and turn around and give it to somebody that's lazy and sits around and doesn't want to work, I don't believe in it."
Obama's proposal does call for higher taxes, but for wealthier taxpayers in the top tier of earners. His plan would restore higher, pre-2001 tax rates for individuals earning more than $200,000 and families making over $250,000. Others would get a tax cut or no tax increase at all.
Regardless, Palin presses forward with thinly disguised warnings that average Joes will see higher taxes, even as she pledges that McCain will lower federal income taxes, increase the tax credit for each child and cut capital gains taxes.
The Palin message about taxes makes sense to many Florida voters. They also got it in western Pennsylvania, where Palin made campaign stops Friday at a tool-and-die shop and an orchard.
Schoolteacher Ellen Myers, 62, of Latrobe, said after Palin's rally in her town that what Palin said about taxes makes it a simple choice to vote for McCain.
"I'm all for less taxes," Myers said. "That's one of the reasons I'm a Republican."
Palin's stop later in the day at the orchard in New Paris, Pa., brought out two sisters who help run their family's dairy farm nearby. It's a fourth-generation family farm, and the slowed economy is really hurting them, said Alicia McDonald, 34, and her sister Angelique McDonald, 38.
High grain and fuel prices and low prices for milk mean "the dairy industry is in bad shape right now," Alicia said. She favors McCain for being what she described as "older and wiser."
"Anyone who was a prisoner of war, if he could get through that, he could get us through this," she said of the current economic crisis.
But the anti-tax message alone doesn't explain Palin's ability to draw even bigger crowds than her running mate.
There are other attributes Palin brings to the ticket, too, and despite criticism of her inexperience and lack of understanding of complex international matters, her newness and skill at campaigning has energized the Republican base in what is expected to be a bleak year for the GOP.
In her stump speeches, Palin frequently says that she and McCain have a "vision of an America where every innocent life counts," a nod to her fiercely anti-abortion beliefs. Palin, whose son was born earlier this year with Down syndrome, also elicits effusive praise from the parents of special needs children, who she promises to be an advocate for, if elected.
Palin also begins every stump speech by introducing her husband, Todd, and emphasizing his blue-collar background as an oil production worker on the North Slope of Alaska.
Her appeal is that she seems a lot like so many of the families in his own district, said Rep. Adam Putnam, who represents a deeply red part of Florida that must turn out en masse for McCain to win the state.
"She readily identifies with and connects with the kind of people who grew up and chose to raise their families" in his district, Putnam said. "The way she lives her life. Everything from her hobbies and hunting, to raising her kids, and her faith and everything. She's immediately identified as a conservative and embraced as a conservative."
And then there are her looks. In a brief interview with McClatchy Newspapers, she downplayed her sex appeal, but when asked why Republican men are so drawn to her, she acknowledged that she understands what it is she represents.
"I hope the appeal is that they recognize that I'm an Alaskan woman who hunts and fishes and runs and has a great appreciation for hard work, blue-collar efforts that have built this great country," she said. "I think that is perhaps what I represent. That whole message resonates well with Republican men. But also Democrat men and women. I appreciate that they recognize what Alaska can produce."
Lenny Brandes, 57, a retired FedEx worker and Republican volunteer attending a Palin rally in New Port Richey, liked what he saw. Said Brandes:
"She's got a lot of fire to her."