Where Palin goes, so go the crowds

If there were any doubts that the sidekick was stealing the show, they were put to rest when Sarah Palin took off for Alaska with a wave from the tarmac by John McCain.

His crowds dwindled. The cheering heard during two weeks of joint appearances went away. And the Republican presidential candidate's schedule began to resemble the lightness of May instead of the full throttle of September.

Meantime, Palin's plane taking her to Alaska was so crowded it had to let off some cargo to get the weight down.

This was a striking week to see the contrast between McCain and Palin together and the dimmed wattage around the nominee when they are apart. They are expected to reunite early next week.

With her, McCain scored the largest crowd of his campaign. An estimated 23,000 people crammed a park in Fairfax, Va., on a weekday morning.

Music blared and people roared as the Arizona senator and his running mate took the stage. “I am so grateful for this turnout,” McCain said. Aides grinned. The crowd shouted “Sarah, Sarah.”

Without Palin later in the day, McCain went to a diner in Philadelphia.

He held a discussion on economic woes there with half a dozen businesswomen. A large crowd backing Democratic rival Barack Obama gathered in the indoor marketplace where the Down Home Diner is located, and yelled “Obama” so loudly that McCain and his guests at times had to lean over the table to hear each other.

McCain's remarks to reporters afterward were similarly drowned out. Palin's arrival in Alaska, her first step away from McCain, only continued her streak of large, excited crowds. The Alaska governor was greeted at the airport by about 2,000 people who nearly choked her up with their happy welcome. McCain aides went with her to help her prepare for her first big interview.

“She's on a wild ride,” Obama told David Letterman, conceding she's the phenomenon of the moment. The Democrat cracked: “As somebody who used to be on the cover of Time and Newsweek – those were the days – I had a recent offer with Popular Mechanics: centerfold with a wrench.”

The lesson from all of this isn't lost on McCain. Campaigns usually split up their presidential and vice presidential candidates so the ticket can cover more ground, which is what Obama and his running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, are doing.

But the McCain camp has calculated it needs to put him back with his No. 2, and probably keep them together for much of the campaign.

Until they are back together, McCain has no rallies.

On Friday, McCain had two appointments, both aimed at female voters: interviews with his wife Cindy on “The View” and “The Rachael Ray Show.”

He planned to stay behind closed doors today at his campaign headquarters, then travel Sunday to a NASCAR race in New Hampshire.

Palin, meantime, is headlining her own rallies in Anchorage and Carson City, Nev., today before flying to Colorado.