"This hangar, or one of these along here -- that's where they brought the alien bodies," says John Pierce, a reporter for KBIM radio in Roswell, New Mexico. We're whiling away the hours at Great Southwest Aviation, waiting for Palin, and John has been talking about the latest coup for Roswell: landing a Palin appearance on a Sunday afternoon. Apparently, the other small towns in southeastern New Mexico are jealous. But the go-getter with the Roswell Republicans is bringing in the party's vice-presidential nominee with the promise of the historic venue. Palin in Roswell. The piece could write itself, but at this point in the race I'm more interested in her supporters than the candidate herself.
The stalwarts who arrive at 9 A.M. are, in an ironic twist on Barack Obama's epithet, the real hopemongers. I go down the line asking people about the chances of the McCain-Palin ticket. "It's not over til it's over!" crow Mike, Sheila and Cindy, who live in nearby Artesia. "People haven't opened their eyes," Sheila says, "because the news media sticks Obama down your throat!"
Sheila, Cindy and Mike are among the younger early birds; most are older couples like Jody and Allen.
"I'm praying for a miracle!" Jody says. (It's always the wife whose remarks are grounded in a realistic assessment.)
"A lot of people will change their minds at the polls," Allen says. "Because of the taxes."
"And second thoughts," Jody says.
"We Americans like underdogs," Allen says. "And this dog is gonna come through like a racehorse!" Allen says that he doesn't like Barack Obama because Obama has lied to him. "The unions aren't coming back, no matter what Obama says. Everything -- everything is made in China now." Like many of the McCain-Palin supporters in line, Allen is a small business owner. He lists, down to the smallest widget, the China-made objects that pass his doors.
At my prompting, Herb and Marla consider the possibility of an Obama presidency. "Unfortunately, we have a very divided country," Herb says. "The liberal left is very loud. They want a country completely unlike what we have here. Bigger government -- socialism. The redistribution of wealth. Overtaxing of companies." Herb is a small business owner from nearby Artesia. "But it'll be a temporary fix -- just four years. We'll wait it out. We're not leavin'!"
"They've been wanting socialism ever since Kennedy," Marla says. "And they've covered up everything, like Obama being a Muslim." But Marla is not discouraged about Republican prospects. "We were just up in Espanola working for McCain and saw only McCain signs everywhere." Ah, lovely Espanola, your sign wars continue.
Contradicting Marla, Herb admits, with a laugh, that it's hard to judge what's really going on because all their friends are Republicans -- because they live in a totally Republican world. "But whoever wins," he says, "we're gonna pray for the people no matter what party they're with!"
Frank and Dorothy take a similar if darker view. "Obama-Biden is the most dangerous thing to come along in a long time," Frank says.
"We're very scared of him," Dorothy says. Quickly, she ticks off her reasons. "Ayers -- everything he [Obama] is asked about, he covers up. He said we [the United States] have 57 states, but it's the Islamics have 57 states. We know that he won't salute the flag. He has a picture of Fidel Castro in his headquarters." (The power and resilience of the urban myth: she is referring to the old calendar picture hanging in an Obama volunteer office in Houston during the Democratic primary race. The picture of Che, not Fidel, caused a bit of a flap at the time, although at the office opening party the volunteer coordinator told me that the picture had been hanging there when they moved in.)
"If you were to let someone like that in, there's no place to run," Frank says. "They're gonna take our guns, take our right to vote, tax our ammunition, and the only way to get a job will be if the government gives it to you! America will not be America --- there'll be such a socialistic turmoil. And there'll be no place to run."
Echoing the Sheila I spoke with earlier, Dale, who works in the oil fields south of Roswell, says, "Young kids of today don't know what change means! And we can get our blood pressure up about people generally being so ignorant!" On November 5, Dale plans to put his cash under his mattress. And "if Obama sends his goons after my guns, I'll be waitin' for them!" In the end, Dale, like Herb, is prepared to endure an Obama administration. "Four years, and he'll be out of there."
These ten citizens in the Land of Enchantment represent most everybody foregoing church to stand in line for Sarah Palin. Small business owners and oilmen, dairy farmers and sportsmen, they veer between optimism and fear. They know little about Barack Obama. "We know nothing about Obama!" is a frequent exclamation. Distrusting mainstream media, they have fallen prey to untruths. They are suspicious of government and hate its taxes. They are decidedly not in favor of a redistribution of wealth, and many folks mention Obama's mention of it. Unlike the Obama supporters who, during McCain's brief dominance in the polls after the Republican Convention, averred in lines for rallies and town hall meetings that they would go to Canada if McCain and Palin won, these New Mexico Republicans vow to stick it out here. They are sure that Americans would "kick Obama out" after four years.
Contributing to the local thinking are local media, some of whom like KBIM radio are conservative. At campaign events, even as the traveling press studiously maintain solemn demeanor and lack of affect --- the better to appear nonpartisan --- local press often wear their hearts on their sleeves, rising to clap and cheer one candidate, trash talking in mutters another. Therefore Tom, another reporter for KBIM Roswell, doesn't hesitate to share with me his prediction that McCain will win by eight electoral votes. "Virginia will put him over the top," Tom says. Like a lot of conservatives, he predicts that "the race will be a lot closer than people think." As for New Mexico, Tom is sure that the southern counties will carry McCain-Palin to victory. When I point out the sparse population of these counties (on the two-hour drive south from I-40 to Roswell, I didn't see another car Sunday morning), Tom replies, as if 2008 were just like previous election years, "those people up in Albuquerque don't vote."
Waiting for Palin, I have ample time to ponder the alternate reality of Roswell --- as well as the weird fact that so many men either own red shirts or are gung-ho enough for McCain-Palin to go out and get one. Over the next few hours, fifteen thousand people, many in red, gather inside and outside the airplane hangar for Sarah. The afternoon grows warmer, and soon older folks are dropping like end-season flies. Talking with some of the oldsters along a barricade, I'm accosted by a Secret Service agent who asks me if I'm press and then tells me to move along. An eighty-five year-old is in distress. Earlier I had trotted back to the security room to fetch her some ice. Now I see that she isn't using the cold pack properly. The Secret Service agent approaches. "I don't want to have to tell you again," he says, just like a middle school hall monitor. "Fine," I retort, slapping the cold pack into his hand. "You do it. The insides of her wrists."
Finally, finally, just before 4 P.M the McCain-Palin plane rolls alongside the hangar as the loudspeakers blare the theme song from "Rocky." When a few traveling press emerge from the rear of the plane, the crowd wildly cheers, thinking that Ed Henry of CNN et al. are either Palin family or entourage. Soon Sarah herself takes the stage, her voice rising above the wolf whistles to cheer on her supporters "live from Roswell" in the same dramatic inflection she used the night before to ring in "Saturday Night Live." Hank Williams, Jr., sings his ditty about "the left-wing liberal media" as the nearer folks realize the identity of the people taking the only press table placed in the hot afternoon sun. For the Palin traveling press, life must be one bitch-slap after another.
Sarah Palin and her speechwriters know this crowd well and hit all the notes: patriotism, taxes, socialism, taxes again.
"John McCain isn't afraid to use the word victory."
"Barack Obama has not been straightforward on his tax plan."
"Now is not the time to experiment with socialism."
To a chorus of boos, Palin calls Obama on spreading the wealth, "as a politician sees fit." Perhaps because she has arrived so late, Palin speaks in a tumble of words. She rushes the speech instead of waiting for her listeners to respond. An air of deflation, however slight, descends upon the hangar. These supporters, who have stood for hours to see Palin, have been hoping to be thrown raw meat, some new "calling it like it is" lines to stoke both optimism and anger. Frank, for example, had said that morning that he wanted to shout a few things but was going to restrain himself. "I wouldn't want to stir up anything to hurt Sarah," he said. In the end, Sarah gives Frank nothing to restrain himself for.
Closing, Sarah Palin recites her now-famous paean to small towns like Roswell, full of "the kindness, courage and goodness of ordinary Americans." Driving the lonely highway back to Albuqerque --- particularly lonely since there isn't a single light between Roswell and the decaying town of Vaughn --- I'm thinking about this small-town America, a place that never really existed but we feel the urge to cherish or to mock, nevertheless. And certainly this vision, however chimerical, has been a place over which the candidates in Election 2008 have fought. Roswell, like the other towns I've visited on the trail, isn't quite how it sees itself. The town's very existence rests upon big government --- in everything, from the health inspections of local dairies to the jobs provided by the local hospital and medical complex, with Wal-Mart the biggest employer in most American towns now, and these health care employers themselves dependent upon payments from Medicare and Medicaid for their life's blood.
The road north, stretching seemingly forever, even in the dark illustrates the unforgiving nature of the land in southern New Mexico. How in the world did settlers survive in the scrub and barrens? Geography, as much as anything, explains the Republican voters of Roswell and their fear of change. With or without aliens, this is a precarious landscape in which both caution and an attentiveness to the slightest shifts along the horizon can determine survival.