Thousands turn out to see Palin at Elon

Sarah Palin, the Republican candidate for vice president, challenged North Carolina voters Thursday to choose Sen. John McCain's promise to balance the federal budget in four years, bring tax relief to every American and drill for offshore oil.

Before an energetic crowd that nearly filled a baseball field at Elon University, Palin urged voters to reject what she described as Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's plan to redistribute wealth and raise taxes.

"It's the choice between a politician who puts his faith in government," Palin said, "and a true leader who puts his faith in you."

Thousands packed the sun-blazed field in support of Palin, including five students who painted her name on their bare chests, along with a sixth who painted an exclamation point.

The crowd clearly felt Palin had been underestimated by both Republican leadership and the national media.

"People pick on her homespun-ness," said Steffen Schultz, a 59-year-old transplant from Connecticut to a farm in King. "She's a woman and keeps her femininity, and she still can be feisty."

Palin trumpeted McCain's performance in Wednesday night's presidential debate, saying he will reform the waste that led to the nation's financial crisis.

"John McCain is going to Washington to work for Joe the Plumber," said Palin, referring to the everyman voter who became the star of Wednesday's debate.

Palin drew cheers, but the loudest reception came for country music star Hank Williams Jr., who performed a song he wrote for the campaign to the tune of his hit "Family Tradition."

"This old union's got problems," Williams sang. "That's plain to see. The Democrats bankrupted Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac like one, two, three."

A spokesman for Obama accused the McCain campaign of putting more emphasis on character attacks than the economy.

"On the same day that Sarah Palin returned to North Carolina, John McCain's campaign fired off three disgraceful pre-recorded phone calls attacking Barack Obama's character," said Paul Cox, a spokesman for Obama. "John McCain's campaign has admitted that the economy is a losing issue for them, so he's chosen to launch these dishonorable and dishonest attacks instead of focusing on issues like creating jobs to strengthen the economy."

Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole warmed up the crowd at Elon, urging voters to remember statewide races such as hers against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. Like Palin, Dole pressed for offshore drilling.

"Jobs are most important in North Carolina," Dole said. "Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. ... We need to drill. We need alternative sources of energy."

One protester was escorted from the baseball field, though Palin urged security to let him stay and learn something. But a handful of Obama supporters in campaign T-shirts said the Palin crowd had been mostly polite.

"It's been an interesting experience," said Whitney Hamilton, a senior at Elon. "I think it's always a good thing to immerse yourself in other opinions. We've gotten a few looks. A few people asked to take our pictures."

Palin was scheduled to attend a private fundraiser later Thursday at the home of Louis DeJoy, CEO of New Breed Inc., and his wife, Aldona Wos, a former U.S. ambassador to Estonia.

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