Ocala, Florida sure would seem to be Sarah Palin country.
Marion County, of which Ocala is the county seat, went for George W. Bush by 17 percentage points in 2004. There are more than 89,000 registered Republicans in Marion County, more than 83,000 of whom are white.
There are 51 churches within a 5-mile radius of downtown Ocala. A lot of those are fundamentalist Christian churches.
Given those demographics, one would expect Palin to be able to draw at least as many people as she drew to her rally in The Villages Sept. 21. Reliable estimates put that crowd at 25,000.
But the McCain campaign made a small blunder scheduling Palin to appear in Ocala today rather than earlier in the week, or even waiting until tomorrow (despite a forecast of rain).
They didn't know Ocala is also Gator Country.
Speakers began taking to the stage at Palin's rally at 2 p.m. Palin herself was scheduled to appear at 3, which is what time it is as I'm writing this.
The University of Florida Gators haven't yet taken the field to begin their game with the Georgia Bulldogs in Jacksonville - that game is scheduled to start at 3:30 p.m. But they've already beaten Sarah Palin.
I drove by the Palin rally site, a baseball stadium at West Port High School, just after 2 p.m. It's a beautiful day here in Ocala. The temperature is 77 degrees, and there are a few puffy clouds in the sky. Perfect for a political rally.
There might have been 2,000 people there when I drove by.
You have a pretty good view of the venue from the road as you drive by. The stage is set up in the outfield, with two sets of bleachers behind it. Those were full. There was also a fair-sized crowd in front of the stage. But it's obvious they expected the entire area of the field to be covered. Instead, the crowd barely reaches the diamond.
Some cars were still straggling in, but I had the windows down, and I could hear an amplified male voice talking from the stage, so the rally had already started (the first speaker, as I noted above, was scheduled at 2).
I attended the Joe Biden rally at a horse farm west of Ocala last Tuesday. I had bleacher seats to one side of the stage, which means I had a great view of the crowd. I estimated it at 2,000. The local newspaper and television stations put the number at 3,500.
Granted, I was viewing this crowd from a slight distance. But I think it was smaller. I'll defer to whatever the local media prints in the morning.
But even if she draws 5,000, I'd say Biden won the crowd size contest in Ocala. Remember, Biden's rally was held in the middle of a weekday (read work and school day). It was also the coldest day of the season here so far, with temperatures at the rally's start time still in the low 50s.
And, as I said, with Marion County's demographics, Palin should have drawn more than 10,000.
That she didn't - that this rally appears to be an epic fail - is thanks to the Florida Gators and Georgia Bulldogs. The annual Florida-Georgia game in Jacksonville is known as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. It's the single biggest sporting event of the year in this part of Florida, with the possible exception of the Daytona 500.
Not all Gator fans in Ocala/Marion County are right-wing, redneck yahoos of the type who attend Palin rallies in the south. But most of the right-wing, redneck yahoos in Ocala/Marion County are Gator fans. And not even the "Thrilla from Wasilla" can come between them and the UF Gators.
For those who say rally crowd sizes mean nothing, you may be right in the grand scheme of a political campaign. But to the local Obama volunteers on the ground, the idea that Biden appears to have drawn as many or more people in Marion County than Palin is a huge morale-booster, and gives us a shot in the arm going into the home stretch.
I phone-banked for Barack at Obama HQ in Ocala this morning, and the joint was buzzing. Even more volunteers were out canvassing, making sure potential Obama voters either took advantage of the last day of early voting in Florida or comitted to voting Tuesday. A lot of us took Tuesday off from work, and will spend a 12-hour day getting Obama voters to the polls.
Wish us well!