Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has left the wilds of Alaska, but she has not quite left the mountains.
In her first cautious steps on the campaign trail without running mate John McCain, the Alaska governor is making a brief swing through the West. It is a region the campaign believes will be particularly receptive to Palin's Washington-outsider message and outdoorsy persona.
It is also a place poised to swing the election.
In her first solo campaign speech in the lower 48 states on Saturday, Palin addressed a cheering crowd in Carson City, Nevada, in a roller hockey rink in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountains. She joked easily about hockey moms, the air show in town and her husband's Piper Cub plane, an outdoorsman's favorite that sits on the lake outside her home in Wasilla, Alaska.
Next stop Colorado
The next stop was Colorado, where Palin planned a rally Monday at an indoor riding center in the Denver suburbs.
These are places full of voters who need no explanation on the nuanced difference between a hockey mom and a soccer mom. For some here, Palin's love of moose hunting is not an exotic quirk. It's a shared hobby. More than 600,000 Coloradans have fishing or hunting licenses.
In naming the first-term governor as his running mate, McCain, an Arizona senator, gave Republicans an all-Western ticket in a year when Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, and to a lesser degree Montana, are in play. It's a double billing that has allowed the Republicans to try to draw a sharp contrast with the Democrats in the race.
Neither Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois nor Joe Biden of Delaware have obvious ties to the interior West, and Obama's native Hawaii has little in common. Neither Democrat has made many attempt to play to the images Western voters have historically responded to. Almost no hats, no boots, no hunting. Yet.
That may be because McCain himself has not fully cultivated his cowboy image. More than 25 years in Congress and an upbringing on military bases has not helped, said Tom Cronin, a political science professor at Colorado College.
"He is really a creature of being a Navy brat and a Washington, D.C., guy. He doesn't strike most people as a Westerner," Cronin said. Both McCain's father and grandfather were Navy admirals, and McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, was a Navy pilot before being elected to Congress in 1982.
Palin is no city slicker
A fishing enthusiast married to a champion snowmobiler racer, there is no doubt Palin is a creature of the big skies and open spaces. She hails from about as far outside Washington as a politician can get. She regularly expounds standard messages of self-reliance, lower taxes and government reform, themes that jibe easily with the Western libertarian streak.
"I reminded people there that government is not always the answer, in fact, too often government is the problem," Palin said Saturday of her work in Alaska. "So, we've got back to basics."
Republicans have wasted little time casting Obama and Biden as city slickers, unfamiliar with public land and water issues.
Republicans and their allies have begun describing Obama-Biden as "antigun." The National Rifle Association, the gun owners' lobbying group, sent a flier to 4 million members this week saying Obama would be "the most antigun president in American history."
The Obama campaign strongly refutes such claims and argues McCain is the one out of touch with the pressing issues in the West.
They point to McCain's gaffe in which he appeared to advocate renegotiating the Colorado River Compact, a position far out of step with both Democrats and Republicans in the seven Western states that rely on the river for water. McCain has since said he does not want to renegotiate the compact.
Obama aides also note that McCain has advocated storing nuclear waste in Nevada, an unpopular position in the state.
"On Western issues, Barack Obama has positions that are light-years ahead of John McCain," said Jim Messina, the Obama campaign's chief of staff. "This election isn't about swagger. This election is about substance and who can bring about change."