CLEVELAND, Ohio (CNN) – Sarah Palin isn’t just your average sports fan. In fact, if her stump speeches are any indicator, the Republican vice presidential candidate is the greatest sports fan in the entire country.
Like any politician who would spend time campaigning in minor-league baseball stadiums and college gyms in battleground states around the country, Palin kicks off most of her speeches by name-dropping the local sports team, a dependable applause line for any candidate.
But the governor digs deeper. Some candidates who might be content to pepper their speeches with a passing references to any given state’s well-known professional football or baseball squad, but with the help of a teleprompter, Palin likes to plug teams most Americans have never heard of. The Green Bay Gamblers, for instance, or the Mesa State Mavericks.
Journalists traveling with the candidate know what's coming from the moment Palin's campaign schedule hits their BlackBerrys. In Ohio, a Buckeye football reference is to be expected. In Indiana, she'll inevitably remind voters that “Hoosiers” is her favorite movie. At a fundraiser in San Antonio, Palin told the assembled donors: “We’re Spurs fans. One of my heroes has always been David Robinson.”
Palin’s trademark rhetorical move is not just to praise swing state sporting traditions, but to weave them into sometimes unwieldy political analogies that summon the McCain campaign's never-say-die spirit.
“It’s so great to be here,” she told a crowd at Elon University in North Carolina in October. “Home of the Elon Phoenix. There’s something providential about that. I hope you all got a chance to watch last night’s debate because the man from Phoenix, yes, the man from Phoenix proved once again that he is the best choice to be our next president.”
Outside Richmond International Raceway in Virginia, Palin recalled this year’s Chevy Rock ‘N Roll 400, which saw Jimmie Johnson sneak by Tony Stewart to take the checkered flag.
“I hear it was quite a thrill," she said. “The lead going back and forth lap after lap nobody knew who was going to win right up to the finish line. Well John McCain and I are nearing the finish line here too of another close race and you know it is looking a lot like that Rock and Roll 400. Our race is going be close.”
A few weeks later, campaigning outside a Bass Pro Shops store in Missouri, Palin acknowledged that her speechwriters might have pushed a fishing metaphor just a bit too far.
“And whether you're a bass pro or a regular Joe, you can help us ... this is a stretch ... but you can help us reel in a big one on November 4,” she said.
Aside from an interview last month with ESPN in which she reminisced about her high school basketball glory days, Palin’s most high-profile public appeals to sports fans have been a pair of ceremonial puck-drops at NHL games: One in St. Louis and another in Philadelphia, where Palin smiled through a thunderous volley of boos from the city’s notoriously merciless sports fans.
Despite her poor reception at the Flyers season opener - a game the home team went on to lose 4-3 - Palin has still tried to appeal to Philadelphians, using officially licensed NFL and Major League Baseball apparel to make her case.
She took a break from debate prep in September to go jogging through the city’s streets in a Donovan McNabb jersey, and she greeted supporters in a Rittenhouse Square bar with a brand new Phillies windbreaker that was purchased earlier that day by a campaign volunteer. Inside the bar, one Republican gave her a broken-in Flyers cap, which she immediately put on her head.
But is the vice presidential candidate a sports panderer? Her varying allegiances have left her vulnerable to serious charges of flip-flopping, at least from opposition researchers over at the Democratic National Committee.
On October 15 in New Hampshire, during the heat of the American League pennant chase, Palin cheered on the Boston Red Sox to a packed high school football stadium.
“We’re just 20 days out from the election and it’s going to come right down to the wire," she said, “and we're counting on you because Red Sox fans know how to turn an underdog into a victor, and that's exactly what you can help us do on November 4!”
Never mind that days earlier, Palin had toasted Boston’s opponent in the American League Championship Series, the upstart Tampa Bay Rays, who, according to Palin, also embodied the GOP ticket's underdog id.
“It’s great to be here in the home of the Tampa Bay Rays too. I know that earlier some of the experts this year were kind of tough on the Rays,” Palin said, drawing laughs. “I’ve been there.”
“But what a difference a season can make, and now the Rays in the playoffs for the first time ever,” she continued. “So Florida knows a little something about turning an underdog into a victor, and together that's what we can do."
There have also been some notable stumbles, most recently in Erie, Pennsylvania, where Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates fans booed Palin for congratulating the World Series champion Phillies.
In Findlay, Ohio earlier this month - the hometown of NFL quarterback Ben Roethlisberger - Palin was jeered for mentioning the Pittsburgh Steelers star. Findlay is Browns and Bengals territory.
And then there was the fundraiser in Texas, where Palin flubbed the name of a legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterback, calling him “Roger Starbuck.” Sensing an error, Palin paused for a moment and corrected herself. “I said Staubach.”
Even her soft-spoken husband Todd, a four-time champion of the Iron Dog snowmobile race, has broadened his interest in the Lower 48’s sports teams over the last two months. As a matter of fact, some of the First Dude’s first words uttered on the campaign trail were football-focused.
“I just want to thank all of you for supporting this ticket,” he said at a fundraiser in Canton, Ohio in early September. “It’s the right ticket to support, and you’ve got a beautiful state. Go Buckeyes.”