When 22-year-old Erik Sanchez talks about Sarah Palin, his eyes go wide and his face lights up with an exuberance usually reserved for rock stars.
In fact, when it comes to stars, Beyoncé is No. 1 for Sanchez. But Palin is a close second, which is why he stood in line with hundreds of others on Wednesday for a chance to meet her at a book-signing event at the Mall of America.
The scheduled main event actually belonged to Palin's 20-year-old daughter, Bristol, who was signing copies of her memoir, "Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far." But for many who stood in line with copies of Bristol Palin's book, the real draw was her mom, who took the national spotlight when she joined John McCain on the 2008 Republican presidential ticket.
According to the book-signing event's rules, Palin fans had to buy Bristol's book in order to get Sarah to sign one of her two books, "America by Heart" or "Going Rogue."
Not a problem, said Sanchez's friend, 18-year-old Merelly Garcia from Excelsior. "I'm more of a fan of Sarah's, but I read Bristol's book and it's really good," Garcia said.
As they waited for the Palins to take the stage, Sanchez explained his passion for Palin. "I value everything she values, especially religion," he said. And for that reason, he would like nothing more than to see her at the top of the Republican ticket, perhaps with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann as her running mate.
He figured he might just tell her that when he got to the table where the Palins -- Sarah, Bristol and Todd Palin -- greeted autograph-seekers.
For some, however, Bristol Palin was the headliner. "Bristol is an inspiration," said 17-year-old Nathan Schmid of Burnsville. "I can't imagine being 17 and having your pregnancy be broadcasted. She dealt with it and now she preaches celibacy. She's not the only 17-year-old who has gotten pregnant. And now she's doing things to make sure her son has a good life."
Hundreds of people wound through the mall's rotunda, waiting to get up close and personal with the Palins. Rod Flohr of Plymouth had been waiting for his chance before the sun rose Wednesday, arriving at the mall at 4:30 a.m. to ensure he wouldn't be squeezed out by crowds.
But there were no overwhelming crowds; all those who came got through the line during the two-hour event. The Palins signed about 700 books, but mall officials estimated that 1,500 people attended the event -- some merely strolling by and stopping to gaze over the rotunda railing.
Jill Beck, visiting from Mandan, N.D., stood at the railing on the second floor, trying to get a photo of the Palins with her cellphone. It's not that she's a fan, she said -- "We just don't see celebrities very often in North Dakota."
When it comes to book signings, Mall of America officials say, former wrestler and movie star the Rock chalked up the largest crowd at the mall with 8,000 people in January 2000. Hillary Rodham Clinton's book signing in August 2003 drew 4,000 fans.
Still, the hundreds who stood in line for the Palins were in awe of their idols.
Walking off the rotunda stage with their signed books in hand, Sanchez and Garcia were all smiles. "I told Sarah she was a great inspiration and that the nation needs more people like her as leaders," Garcia said. "I told Bristol I like her shirt." Sanchez, however, was starstruck. "I was speechless," he said. "The words weren't coming out."
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788