Small town Wasilla buzzing over Palin's sudden ascent

Sharing coffee and doughnuts in the back of Carr's Quality Center supermarket, Lou Hoffman and Dave Chatterton savored the image of Sarah Palin, their city's former mayor, mixing it up at a Beltway soiree.

“I can see her sitting at a party and they're talking about this, that, and the other,” said Hoffman, an 84-year-old Air Force veteran. “And she asks, ‘How many guns do you have?'”

Chatterton, a retired corrections official, burst out laughing. “‘And what caliber are they?'” he said.

As Palin prepares to accept the Republican nomination for vice president, neighbors in her Alaskan town are responding with a mix of pride, amazement and, in some cases, trepidation.

From Chimo Guns, where Palin buys ammunition beneath stuffed heads of moose, caribou and musk ox, to the green booths of the bustling Mat Su Family Restaurant, people here are bursting with excitement that their governor could ride into Washington and clean up the mess.

“She's more woman than Hillary and she's more man than Hillary,” said Cheryl Metiva, who attends Wasilla Bible Church with Palin. “She's a feminist on a mission. She's very much in touch with being … a wife and a mother and a girlfriend to the women in her life. She's also strong and she can go toe to toe with anybody.”

Behind some of the bravado and sense of pride, some also harbor fears that a woman who only four years ago was building sewer lines and a new hockey rink as mayor of this small town could be called on to handle an international crisis.

“She's a very effective local leader,” said Don McNamee, 57, who voted for Palin for mayor and was at the Alaska State Fair in neighboring Palmer, selling raffle tickets for the Disabled American Veterans. “But as far as being vice president, I'm concerned. She's been mayor of Wasilla. Wasilla is nothing.”

Stopping for coffee at the Holiday gas station, on his way to a fishing expedition with his son on the rustic Kenai peninsula, Tom Smith said he was “electrified” that John McCain chose Palin, whom he called a “breath of fresh air – Alaska air, last-frontier air.”

“She'd be a good vice president,” said Smith, 68, a retired marine engineer. Then he leaned forward and added in a hushed tone: “But if something happens to him … she's lost. She doesn't have any foreign experience.”

Located an hour north of Anchorage, Wasilla was founded in the early 1900s as a base for gold-mining in the Talkeetna Mountains, the saw-tooth, snow-laced range that juts across the horizon. Now, it is a shopping hub, a series of drab strip malls and big-box stores straddling a highway. The blue-and-yellow Alaska railroad makes whistle stops in town, carrying miners and tourists 300 miles from Anchorage to Denali.

Just blocks from the shopping plazas, thick pine forests rise on all sides. Many residents live in the wooded outskirts, including the Palins.