Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin implored Georgia Republicans to back Sen. Saxby Chambliss in his hotly contested Senate runoff, telling a cheering crowd Monday that the first step in rebuilding the GOP begins with the Southern state.
The former vice presidential candidate made her first campaign appearance since the Republican ticket of John McCain and Palin lost on Nov. 4. Palin's four stops for Chambliss underscored not only the stakes for the GOP in the Senate race but Palin's popularity within the party. She has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2012 — a fact not lost on some Georgia voters.
Several thousand supporters waited in the cold to file into the James Brown Arena in Augusta. Vendors sold bright pink "Palin 2012" T-shirts and "Palin for President: You Go Girl" buttons. She was greeted like a rock star with chants of "Sa-rah!"
"Georgia the eyes of America are upon you," the former vice presidential candidate said. "We all have Georgia on our minds."
Last month in the general election, Chambliss fell short of crossing the 50 percent threshold in a three-way race against Democrat Jim Martin and a Libertarian candidate, Allen Buckley, who drew 3.4 percent of the vote. The runoff between Chambliss and Martin will help determine the balance of power in Washington where Democrats are just two votes shy of the 60 votes needed to prevent Republican filibusters. Georgia is one of two undecided contests. A recount is under way in Minnesota in the tight race between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken.
All signs from early voting for the runoff pointed toward Chambliss holding the seat.
The contest has attracted almost 500,000 early voters and some 36 percent are white males, typically a solid Republican constituency in the state. In the weeks leading up to the general election, white males cast about 27 percent of the more than 2 million early votes.
Less than 23 percent of the early voters for the runoff are black — a drop from the surge of black voters in the run-up to the general election. Black voters made up more than 34 percent of the 2 million early voters before the Nov. 4 contest when President-elect Barack Obama was on the ballot.
Palin cast the Georgia runoff as the first step in rehabilitating the Republican Party, wounded by losses in November including the defeat of the McCain-Palin ticket.
"It takes rebuilding and I say let that begin here in Georgia tomorrow," Palin said.
She highlighted Chambliss' support for gun rights as well his opposition to abortion and tax hikes.
"We must send Saxby back to the United States Senate," she said.
Palin said she has a soft spot for Georgia where her eldest son, Track, trained at Fort Benning before deploying to Iraq.
"You took good care of my son," Palin said.
Martin is touring the state Monday with prominent Georgia Democrats, including Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta. He'll cap the day with a state Capitol rally with the Atlanta hip hop artist Ludacris.
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., warmed up a crowd of about 2,000 at Palin and Chambliss' second stop in Savannah by taking a dig at Martin for campaigning with a rapper who has written some raunchy lyrics. "Would you play that for your momma?" Kingston said of Ludacris' music.
"I think Jim Martin should be with Ludacris," Kingston said. "It would be ludicrous to vote for Jim Martin."
Martin had asked President-elect Barack Obama to campaign with him. Obama recorded a radio ad and automated phone calls for Martin but did not campaign in the state. Some 100 Obama field operatives traveled to the state to help with turnout.
Several Republicans have campaigned for Chambliss, including McCain and other one-time presidential candidates such as Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. But Palin's election-eve swing to four Georgia cities reflected her star status.
Tommy Byler, 22, of Savannah marveled at the size of the crowd Palin drew compared to other top-tier Republicans who have campaigned for Chambliss.
"I went to see Mitt Romney a week ago, and I think there were only about 100 people there," said Byler, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with Palin's face and the words "Sarah Palin Is My Homegirl."
Former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore have campaigned for Martin.
Georgia's last U.S. Senate runoff was in 1992. Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler pulled more votes in the general election but lost to Republican Paul Coverdell in the runoff.