Governor Palin rallies for Saxby Chambliss in Georgia

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) – Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin implored Georgia Republicans to back Sen. Saxby Chambliss in his hotly contested Senate runoff, telling a cheering crowd Monday 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.

And she 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 touted 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.

Martin had asked President-elect Barack Obama to campaign with him. Obama recorded a radio ad and automated phone calls on his behalf but never made it to the state. Some 100 Obama field operatives flocked to the state to help with turnout.

Palin is just the latest political star to enter the fray in Georgia’s heated runoff contest. It has also drawn McCain and GOP rivals Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, as well as Democrats Al Gore and former President Bill Clinton.

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.