“Look I can’t go down there,” the driver said.

We were on our way to another Palin rally, out in the backblocks of Richmond, a city which appears to be all backblocks. The brutalist concrete stadium loomed high above us as we circled in closer, the familiar carny fringe of t-shirt stalls, button sellers and home-school kids pushed into service selling cups of warm soda.

“Not there, there,” James said in frustration. “Follow that van.”

But the guy was a timid gentlemen, looked like he’d had some sort of real job before being consigned to the twilight life of taxis, and cops waving wildly at him had got him mozzed. Silly bugger, we thought.

We persuaded him eventually, street by street until we found an open entrance near the main carpark –the car park full of trucks of a size that would not have seemed out of place in an opencut mining operation. The crowd was already being warmed up and whooping as we made our way in — and found out that the driver — even now squealing away — clearly had some voodoo good sense we should have tapped into. The place was scary.

“Wear red” the invitation had suggested, and thousands of participants had been happy to comply. The red-blue swapover in American politics has been a source of humour before — “Keep Alabama red” type signs on highways, suggesting that a revolutionary committee sits in Little Rock, sending out fighting girl brigades to extend the revolution to Chatanooga — but this was something else.

Skeins and veins of scarlet ran through the crowd, like blood was pouring from the stage, with a bit of splatter. There was a touch of Maoist opera about it in everything but the mood, which was less exuberantly fixed on the radiant future than just downright mean.

With camera in hand James and I had hit on the hilarious gag of using my passing resemblance to Lenin to address the crowd from behind, and have them turn in bewilderment and anger, as if it were the May days of Petrograd 1917. We pretty quickly abandoned that after observing that:

a) people were not in the mood for our funny, funny jokes and
b) there was no easy escape route.

Resorting to the last refuge of the scoundrel, we tried direct journalism. “Few words for the Australian media?” By and large they had they had two, and one of them has a dash in the middle.

Pity really, but you can’t blame them. Republican politics are so tied up in knots at this point that any belief can only be sustained by keeping yourself clear of any reasoning process. With the US government now proposing to take a larger stake in the banking sector than the Venezuelan government has in its, the final sense of legitimacy and identity that attached to the “American way” of doing things has completely collapsed.

Attempts to blame the Democrats are half-hearted at best, as the US scrambles to nationalise a key sector of its economy like one of those little b-tch European states it used to like to punk so much. So a gruesome triage has been performed, pivoting on McCain’s maverick message. For the crowds gathering in the coal towns and NASCAR tracks of the swing states McCain and Palin it is the Republicans McCain and Palin are going to Washington to sort out.

The Democrats barely figure in the narrative, save of course for Barack Obama who is less an actual politician now than a distilled symbol of everything that negates them, bookish, exotic, inner city, thoughtful and of course bbbbbbbl … For a long time they weren’t paying much attention to the national race, or to the possibility that Obama might be their President.

When they started to watch the race, McCain had pulled ahead. Now the reality of an Obama victory is starting to sink in along with the anticipation of pain, that awful crunch in the stomach as you contemplate total loss.

As always happens in such circumstances, team McCain and friends have formed themselves into a circular firing squad. With McCain refusing to stay with the strategy of damning Barack Obama as a mysterious dangerous friend of terrorists, hard core conservatives such as Jonah Goldberg of the National Review hacked into him for not having the guts to stick with the scorched earth policies his Karl Rove coterie of advisors had developed.

Now Bill Kristol, the New York Times house conservative who’s been using his column as a series of gentle memos to the campaign, has advised McCain to sack his campaign, stop running the attack ad, and use the money to run televised town hall meetings where people can see he and Palin for the great campaigners they are.

This is fantasy. A pre-emptive strike against being blamed for helping lose Washington for the GOP for a decade or more. McCain is too exhausted to do great town halls these days, he spends half of them getting ambushed by his nastier, crazier, or simply more spooked, supporters. With the bitterness rising they’re becoming increasingly uncontrollable.

This week, for example, one jerk had brought along a toy monkey with an Obama headband on it. McCain would never have seen it, but it doesn’t matter. Had he suggested letting North Korea run the joint prior to a return to barter, it couldn’t have got more viral than that one guy with a ten dollar toy and a sticker, disgracing everyone else.

But if the “show the real McCain” push is fantastical, then the idea of “unleashing Palin” is equivalent to thinking that that lap dancer really liked you. Though she’s made a couple of stonking speeches, Palin’s abilities on the stump, as judged by today’s blood-red rally, are third rate at best. Short of flying in the whole of Wasilla, she couldn’t have had a better crowd, yet, hell, they were doing all the work in getting up an atmosphere today. Given a stump speech crafted by experts and touching all the bases – maverick, pro-life (with markedly less interest in their lives) yadayada — she can’t breathe life into it, can’t get it to the next level.

That is the sort of occasion where lack of experience shows. US politics, more than any other, demands that you master the art of the stump, which is to make boilerplate material sound like it was something you had just thought of, a sudden and instant formulation that you were communicating to you, yes you, Joe Joan SixPack/Lunchpail/Hockeymom.

You take out or put in a para here or there, but the art is really to sell the same material. Palin can’t do it, because she never really had to in Alaska — her campaign for governor was a series of informal chats and coffee meetings around stuff she knew about, i.e. Alaska municipal-state relations. She sells it like, well, like she was still in a miss congeniality competition talking about world peace.

“Gosh doggone it, special needs kid special needs love maverick clean up Washington,” she schlepped through, the crowd never really energised.

At points chants of “U-S-A” started up from the crowd fringes, and she took up the chant. When the audience is giving you the energy, your act is in trouble. Whatever the advantage of Palin’s candidacy — and it has undoubtedly delivered — she can’t get it to the next level, which is to get the base out to convert their friends and neighbours out, get that wavering vote, be viral.

That’s the sort of thing a Huckabee — now with his own FOX TV show — or even a Romney could have done, tagteaming with McCain. Joe Biden is doing this across the northeastern swing states, rounding up Ohio and Pennsylvania and quietly talking, more in sorrow than anger, about what a tool his good friend John McCain has become.

God knows McCain could have used that. Today, ahead of the debate, Obama released an expanded financial plan, guaranteeing tax credits for small businesses who employ extra workers and a bunch of other stuff, turning the focus onto grassroots economics. Poor old Walnuts McCain, doing a one-on-one interview on CNN had to concede that two of the proposals were “good ideas”. Having spuriked his wasteful mortgage guarantee plan — a profligate version of earlier Democrat plans — he could hardly bang the “government is the problem not the solution” drum. Never seen him so tired. Bradley effect, Schmadely, um, feffect.

He thinks it’s over, and he’s thinking of his reputation, of history — and also that he will have to spend a lot of time with himself in the coming years, and he wants to be the sort of person he would want to hang around with.

The crowds at the raceway, the Palinites, the NASCAR folk, the bikies and angry vets and whatever … this dynastic Navy man is as alien to these people as Obama is. He’s repelled by their resentment, their exuberant know-nothingism, their worship of complacency. Deep down, they know it too. At the stalls, as we leave, Palin only buttons are outselling all others three to one.

We call a cab from the local McDonald’s. It’s the same driver, who takes us through the backstreets of this southern town, the houses and porches that seem unchanged for a century, contemplating great change now.

“I thought you were scared,” I say.

He shrugs.

“There’s no other work.”

Forty states. Forty states. 

Peter Fray

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