O'FALLON, MO. — At what aides called his largest campaign rally ever, presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain recounted a visit he made earlier Sunday to a Hurricane Gustav emergency operations center to highlight his concern for affected communities and to showcase his new running mate, Sarah Palin.
McCain and Palin had flown to Jackson, Miss., early Sunday for an hourlong briefing on preparations for the expected landfall of the monster storm. After the briefing, McCain spoke via video link from St. Louis to delegates and the media gathering in St. Paul, Minn., for the Republican National Convention. "We are facing a great national challenge and the possibility of a great natural disaster," said McCain, who appeared solemn.
McCain praised the coordination he had witnessed, although he worried aloud whether officials had secured enough communications equipment to link emergency personnel. "I have every expectation that we will not see mistakes of Katrina repeated," he said.
Later, McCain detailed his visit to the emergency center at the huge rally in this bedrock conservative community west of St. Louis. McCain has often criticized as "disgraceful" the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He also has sought to refute Democratic Party assertions that he represents "more of the same" Bush policies.
McCain's swift, highly visible response to the hurricane, including curtailing the Republican convention proceedings, seemed partially an attempt to as a strong potential commander in chief, even if he has no role in organizing or supervising emergency operations on the Gulf Coast.
His rival, Democratic nominee Barack Obama, said his campaign planned engage its huge e-mail list of supporters to find volunteers and donors once the storm's impact was clear and authorities determined what help would be needed.
"We can activate an e-mail list of a couple million people who want to give back," Obama said after attending church Sunday morning in Lima, Ohio. "I think we can get tons of volunteers to travel down there if it becomes necessary."
Obama declined to criticize McCain's trip. The storm "raises bipartisan concerns and I think for John to want to find out what's going on is fine," he said.
Palin, the governor of Alaska, looked dramatically different than when she appeared at the Missouri rally, her third public appearance since McCain introduced his surprise pick for running mate Friday. She didn't wear her traditional updo, opting instead to let her hair rest on her shoulders, a possible attempt to soften her self-described "schoolmarm" appearance.
Palin also unveiled a far more assertive demeanor. "As we've seen in other disasters, a crisis on this scale can bring out the best in this country," she said of the storm response. She noted that she recently signed a disaster declaration for an Alaskan community near Fairbanks that was hard hit by a storm.
Later, Palin and Cindy McCain, John McCain's wife, flew to St. Paul while Palin's husband, Todd, and four of their children returned to Alaska, the campaign said. Palin will hold private meetings at the GOP convention but has no public events scheduled. She is expected to address the delegates Wednesday night.
If McCain took a gamble in choosing the little-known governor as his running mate, he seemed to take another risk this weekend. McCain has suffered from a severe form of skin cancer and normally wears a baseball cap to protect his face when outdoors. For the last two days, however, he has campaigned with his head exposed under a broiling sun.
McCain's campaign said 17,000 people had jammed the bleachers and infield of the T.R. Hughes Ballpark in O'Fallon, making it the largest event of McCain's campaign. The crowd was about twice the size of Wasilla, the rural Alaskan town where Palin served on the City Council and as mayor before she was elected state governor less than two years ago.
As vendors hawked buttons bearing Palin's picture, the crowd responded to her arrival with rapturous cheers. At one point, a man interrupted her with a "You go, girl!" and the crowd roared with approval.
After the speech, a grinning McCain held Palin's right hand as she strode down blue-carpeted steps in high heels. The Secret Service watched nervously as fans thrust out their hands for Palin to shake and pushed notebooks and posters for her to autograph.
"She's spunky," said Gail LeMay, 58, a retiree. "She really brings life to the campaign." LeMay marveled that McCain looked "to the tundra" to pick his running mate. "It's the ultimate American story, our myth really, about how someone can come from nowhere and wind up in the White House."
David Strickland, a 53-year-old accountant, also approves of Palin.
"She's very conservative," he said. "That's a good balance with McCain."
As for her qualifications for the White House, Strickland shrugged. "I'm not sure there's any job in the world that prepares you to be president," he said. "I'd vote for her if she were still mayor."
Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, hammered McCain during a swing through the Midwest, saying the Republican does not understand the struggles of working-class Americans. They ended their day with a rally at a baseball stadium in Battle Creek, Mich., where roughly 17,000 supporters -- the same size as McCain's crowd -- greeted them with an ovation.
Drogin reported from Missouri and Levey from Ohio and Michigan.