Things have changed quickly for the McCain campaign.
Since announcing Sarah Palin as his running mate less than two weeks ago, John McCain has started attracting larger crowds, more media coverage and the attention of undecided voters who may have just started to pay attention to presidential politics.
A senior adviser said the campaign's internal poll numbers are climbing -- rapidly. Several polls that have come out since last week's Republican National Convention show McCain leading at least narrowly among likely voters and either tied or leading by a few points among registered voters.
At a campaign stop in Albuquerque this exweekend, McCain implicitly gave his running mate the credit for the surge in enthusiasm.
"I could not ask for a greater partner than the governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin," McCain told a crowd of more than 6,000 people at the Albuquerque Convention Center. "And that's... because the response to her has been overwhelming. It's been incredible. She's ignited America. I'm so proud to have her with me."
A few days earlier, speaking to a crowd of more than 10,000 people in Cedarburg, Wis., McCain called Palin the "most marvelous running mate in the history of this nation" and someone "who has done so much already to lift the spirits and morale of people all over this country."
Palin's appearances before GOP voters in Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 29 and at the convention in St. Paul, Minn., have widely been deemed successes. So much so, in fact, that planned trips for Palin to return home to Alaska and for McCain to visit a pharmaceutical company in central Missouri were canceled so the pair could continue to campaign together.
According to senior advisor Mark Salter, "the senator himself thought they should continue on together for a few more days."
One reason McCain might want Palin around is the enthusiastic reaction she is eliciting from a previously tepid Republican voting bloc. The large crowds who have come out to see the GOP ticket campaign together seem to chant "Sar-ah! Sar-ah!" much more readily than "John Mc-Cain! John Mc-Cain!" And when asked why they decided to go to a McCain-Palin rally, many attendees cite Palin as their main reason.
During an overcrowded rally at an airport hangar in Colorado Springs, McCain supporter Joyce Durland admitted that she is much more liberal than Palin but said she is optimistic about what the governor can bring to the ticket.
"I think she'll excite the base," Durland said, even though she doesn't consider herself a member of that base. She later added that she is hopeful conservatives will now be more excited to vote for McCain even though Durland said she considers him a "liberal on social issues" and only "conservative on some issues."
The perception that McCain is not a true conservative has long plagued him among the GOP base. Prior to announcing his running mate, McCain was frequently challenged by self-proclaimed conservative voters who had problems with the various bipartisan efforts on his legislative resume.
At McCain's last town hall -- held Aug. 20 in Las Cruces, N.M. -- a questioner expressed concern that McCain's moderate record in the Senate might have an effect on his impending VP choice.
"In the past you've alienated a great deal of conservatives who believe that conservative principles are always the answer, by stepping across the aisle," the man said. "And the third point of a vice president is the opportunity to groom himself to be president in the next cycle.... Are you going to pick a vice president that conservatives can actually rally around in the future, or are you going to give us someone who will cause us to want to stay home, perhaps?"
Now it seems the self-proclaimed "maverick" may have found a solution to a problem that his advisers claim never existed but certainly are unconcerned about now. Polling has varied, but senior adviser Charlie Black told reporters in Colorado Springs last week that it is difficult for any Republican presidential candidate to get higher than 90 to 92 percent support from GOP voters, and McCain is nearing that number.
Although McCain campaign advisers won't admit it, another crucial part of galvanizing the party's base is the campaign's offensive against the mainstream media. On the day of Palin's convention speech, the McCain campaign sent out two statements from senior strategist Steve Schmidt decrying "smears" against the Palin family he claimed were disseminated by the media.
"The smearing of the Palin family must end," one statement read. "The allegations contained on the cover of the National Enquirer insinuating that Governor Palin had an extramarital affair are categorically false.... The efforts of the media and tabloids to destroy this fine and accomplished public servant are a disgrace."
By conflating rumors printed in tabloids with critical stories put out by legitimate news outlets, the McCain campaign is trying to diminish the impact of negative stories on the public image of its relatively unknown VP. This strategy helped effectively undercut one of the first controversies to erupt after Palin's selection.
When the campaign released an official timeline of its vice presidential selection process, what drew the most scrutiny from the media was the Thursday morning meeting where McCain officially offered Palin the position. According to the timeline, that meeting was only the second time that McCain and Palin had met, and the first time since their introduction in 2006. This led some in the media to investigate how thoroughly Palin was vetted by McCain's campaign before she was offered a spot on the ticket.
"This vetting controversy is a faux media scandal designed to destroy the first female Republican nominee for vice president of the United States who has never been a part of the old boys' network that has come to dominate the news establishment in this country," Schmidt wrote in a separate statement released on the Wednesday of the GOP convention.
According to the McCain campaign, any attempt to examine whether Palin's resume was sufficiently scrutinized before she was offered the job was actually a form of sexism "designed to destroy" her. Such rhetoric proved appealing to many Republican voters who already felt that the media was biased against their party's candidate, and on the first McCain campaign swing after the convention, members of McCain's traveling press corps were booed and told to "leave Sarah and her family alone."
In less than a month, the "maverick" Republican presidential nominee has found a way to rise in the polls by picking a running mate who appeals to a conservative voting bloc his advisers said he never needed to court and picking a fight with the same media members whom he once jokingly called his "base." Tellingly, the Gallup poll shows that enthusiasm among Republican voters has jumped 18 percentage points since the selection of Palin, from 42 percent to 60 percent (for Democrats, that number has risen from 61 percent to 67 percent).
There's no telling how long McCain's jump in the polls will last, or if he will have to find a new spark once the novelty of Palin wears off. But at least for now, McCain seems to have found a way to narrow the enthusiasm gap that seemed to have plagued him and his party.