Seeking to win Nevada, a swing state with five electoral votes, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin made her first solo campaign stop in the lower 48 states Saturday, promising ethics reform, lower taxes and energy self-sufficiency.
Palin, greeted by chants of "Sarah, Sarah," spoke to about 3,500 people for about 20 minutes. She was interrupted frequently by cheers and applause. And she led the audience in the now-familiar refrain: "Drill, baby, drill."
"In a McCain-Palin administration, we're going to expand opportunity for new energy development," the Alaska governor said, promising she and John McCain would push to "drill now to make this nation energy self-sufficient."
Palin did not mention Barack Obama or Joe Biden, a departure from her early days on the trail when she harshly criticized the Democratic presidential nominee.
But she took a veiled swipe at Michelle Obama's ill-chosen words early in the campaign, saying John McCain, "like you and like me, is always proud to be an American."
After her speech, Palin and her husband Todd -- she called him the "first dude" and noted that he is a member of the United Steelworkers union - spent more than a half hour signing autographs and shaking hands before heading to two more swing states: Colorado and Ohio.
"I love her. She is an all-American woman. She is like all of us," said Juliene Allman, who manages a dental office in Reno.
It might seem odd that Palin made Nevada's capital city her first solo stop outside of her native Alaska, but Carson City is in a battleground region in a battleground state. Palin's visit, to be followed by Obama's this week, underscores how close the outcome could be on Nov. 4.
The state is narrowly divided. Bill Clinton carried it in 1992 and 1996. George W. Bush won it in 2000 and 2004, each time by about 21,500 more votes than his foes.
"George Bush won our state because of rural Nevada, twice," Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said in a warm-up for Palin on Saturday, urging the crowd to "turn out like never before."
Thanks to a labor-backed voter registration effort, Democrats have expanded their ranks to 458,900, compared to 397,200 Republicans. Roughly one-fifth of the state's voters, or about 150,000, are nonpartisan.
Obama is almost certain to win in Las Vegas and Clark County, where organized labor representing casino workers is strong and Democrats hold a 92,200-voter advantage, though even there, more than 100,000 voters are registered with no party preference.
The McCain-Palin ticket likely will win in rural parts of the state. That means the Carson City-Reno-Sparks area could tip the balance. Republicans hold a slight edge, 97,000 voters to 89,000 Democrats, in Carson City and Washoe County, where Reno and Sparks are.
"Washoe County is where it is going to be decided," said political scientist David Damore, of University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
Obama and McCain are airing television ads here. Obama is attacking McCain for his support for using Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste dump, not a popular stand in the Silver State. McCain's ads charge that Obama intends to raise taxes, also unpopular in a state with no income tax.
Like Republicans, Democrats view Reno, Sparks and Carson City as a battleground cities. Unite Here, also known as the culinary workers union, represents casino workers. It has undertaken a significant independent campaign in Northern Nevada, targeting roughly 35,000 voters, most of whom have Spanish surnames.
"If you don't move the needle in Washoe County, it undercuts what you can do in Las Vegas," said Jack Gribbon, the organizer overseeing the union's independent campaign.
In her remarks, Palin delivered several feel-good lines: "America is an exceptional country, and you are all exceptional Americans," perhaps aimed at differentiating herself from Obama who sometimes talks about "ordinary Americans."
She also repeated two of her most popular lines, about how she turned down federal earmarks for the "bridge to nowhere" and put the state-owned jet on eBay. By the time Palin canceled the bridge between Ketchikan, Alaska, and its island airport, Congress had long since decided not to pay for it. And the plane failed to sell on eBay; a broker later sold it at a loss.
She also said she had confronted the oil industry in her state. "Whatever they're running now, it is not the state of Alaska," she said.
On Friday, all Alaska residents had received checks for $3,300, thanks in part to a rebate that Palin had pushed to help cover high energy costs.
"They can spend it better than government can," she said, and promised "tax reform" if she and McCain win. "We're trusting people with their money."
Palin played to the crowd, talking about the annual air show held in the area, mentioning that her husband flies small planes, and saying that they named one of their girls Piper, after the plane maker.
She noted that the place where she spoke -- the Pony Express Pavilion -- doubles as a roller-hockey rink, and referred to hockey moms. She singled out Chuck Yeager, the famous aviator, who was in the crowd, noting that he broke the sound barrier and saying she hoped to break through the glass barrier.
"You guys get it," Palin said. "You understand the need to put the pride back into America. We can do this because we are an exceptional nation."
"She's a real firecracker," said Renee Major, a first-grade teacher in Reno. She wore a button that had a photo of Palin firing a rifle, and read, "Read my lipstick, change is coming."
Major said she "kind of" was planning to vote for McCain, but when he selected Palin, she became an enthusiastic booster. Like others interviewed, she brushed aside criticism that Palin might not be well-versed on all the issues. "She is holding her own with the old boys."
"Who could get excited about McCain? When Palin came on, she added such energy. She added excitement," said Ron Brandow, who came to Carson City from Lake Tahoe, where he was vacationing with his wife, Livia Bain, to hear Palin.
"I'm 67, and she's the first person who is running for national office who is a common person," said Brandow, who is from Houston.
Palin started her day in Alaska with a rally at the Dena'INA Civic & Convention Center in Anchorage. Although the Obama campaign has targeted Alaska, with its three electoral votes, the state is almost certain to vote for the McCain-Palin ticket.
With husband, Todd, and three of their children, Willow, Piper and Trig, at her side, Palin urged Alaskans to help the victims of Hurricane Ike, a plea she repeated in Carson City.
Palin drew some of the wildest applause when she stated: "In a McCain-Palin administration, we are going to drill now."
"It's not just Alaska realizing how desperately we need to be energy independent," she said.