SPRINGFIELD — They stood huddled in winter coats, scarves and Gore-Tex gloves. Some knitted to pass the time, others listened to a hillside preacher recite Bible verses using a megaphone.
With just two hours to spare and 1,000 people enduring a bitterly cold December morning for her signature, political supernova-turned-best-selling-author Sarah Palin could only devote an average of seven seconds to each — enough time for a quick handshake and brief pleasantries.
The fleeting encounters with the woman who could wind up as the Republican Party's best hope to reclaim the White House mattered little to supporters like Steve Presley, a 60-year-old travel agency owner and former Army Ranger.
"It was worth every second," he said Wednesday, clutching an autographed copy of the million-selling Palin memoir "Going Rogue." ''She's a mother, politician, homemaker — she's done everything."
Accompanied by her parents and toddler son Trig, Palin emerged from the bright blue RV emblazoned with her image to chants of "Sarah, Sarah" outside a Borders bookstore in southwest Missouri. She took no questions from reporters, whom were restricted to a roped-off area inside the store for just the first five minutes of the event.
Palin didn't talk politics with her fans, and the rules of contact were strictly enforced: no cell phones or cameras, no personalized signatures, a maximum of two books per person, with proof of purchase required to even receive the color-coded wristband granting entrance to the store.
But from the "Palin 2012" buttons worn by supporters to the reminder inscribed on the side of her tour bus to join SarahPAC, her political action committee, it was clear that Palin intends to remain a political force to be reckoned with, regardless of her future plans.
"It's clear she's going to make an impact in 2010 (midterm elections) or 2012, whether she runs or not," said Dave Cooke, 40, a football trainer from suburban St. Louis who arrived at 4 a.m Wednesday to ensure he could see Palin six hours later. "I'd like to see her run, but I have enough faith that she'll make the right choice."
Palin spoke Wednesday night at College of the Ozarks, a private school near Branson, which gave her a "Great American" award. College of the Ozarks President Jerry Davis said Palin was the inaugural recipient of the award for her contributions to promoting patriotism, the Springfield News-Leader reported.
A school spokeswoman said the 4,000 free tickets allotted for Palin's speech had gone quickly, along with another 1,000 spots in an adjacent overflow room where Palin's speech was shown on video.
Per Palin's request, reporters were not allowed inside the auditorium — or even on campus — unless they held tickets like the general public.
School officials declined to say how much they were paying for Palin's appearance, which was booked by the Washington Speakers Bureau. The college has previously hosted former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Secretary of State Colin Powell.