Sarah Palin winked at me during her debate with Joe Biden. She winked at the camera, and I think it was meant for me. There is a connection between us that goes back to that tear-gassy September night in St. Paul, when she gave her acceptance speech and I was up in the balcony, taking notes.

It's nothing our spouses need to worry about. It's just a thing between the governor of Alaska and a dreamy guy from the next-coldest state who is a good listener and can split firewood and make cocoa. Just two adults who know that, no, it can never be, but who can't help but think, what if we had met in a different place, like the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, which is 400 miles long and starts Jan. 25 in Duluth, just in case anyone reading this doesn't have to start a new job in Washington in January?

I would make a good First Dude.

OK, I'm only joking. Call off the morals squad. Sarah Palin connects with a lot of people that way. She is folksy and down-to-earth and, whatever else you want to say about her lack of experience, she sure knows what I am doing on Saturday mornings.

In Thursday's debate, she said if you want to know whether this is a good time in America all you need to do is go to a kid's soccer game Saturday and ask about the economy. If you talk to soccer parents, she said, "I betcha you're going to hear some fear in that parent's voice."

Politicians used to dismiss the concerns of soccer moms; now the Republicans have one on their national ticket.

Palin can't see Russia from Wasilla, but she can see Americans. Biden and Barack Obama may have the answers, but Palin nailed the feelings.

I know this because on Saturdays, my kids play soccer while I try not to worry about the world and try not to think about how I should move to Alaska, hunt walrus to feed my family and just wait for the end times.

We are blessed with cleat-footed soccer players clattering around the house on Saturdays, which is when the 5- and 6-year-olds play at our neighborhood park. Our team wears orange. The girls call us the Pumpkins. The boys call us the Fighter Jets. I just say "Orange."

I am the coach. Which means showing the Pumpkins/Fighter Jets how to do throw-ins, explaining that they should not run over other kids and teaching them to stop kicking when the ball is up against the teeth of players who have tripped and fallen with their faces in the way.

So far, no lives have been lost.

At this level, there are a few experienced kids who have an advantage because they know how to play. I call them "Joe Bidens."

Two weeks ago, one of our Bidens scored so many goals that I asked him not to pile on. In the next game, "Biden" was all alone with the ball and he attacked the other team's goal. Suddenly, he did a 180 and dribbled the ball back toward our end of the field. "Joe," I said. "Last week is over. It's a new game.

"Feel free to score."

But back to Sarah Palin. She said parents are fearful, and she is right.

'Things are scary'

This fall, after the post-soccer snack, the kids climb on the playground equipment while the parents chat. The chatting has turned into anxious conversation in the past few weeks, as parents share their worries about Wall Street, falling housing values, jobs and the exhaustion that comes with raising families while it seems you work harder and harder for less and less.

Sarah Palin likes to quote Ronald Reagan, but Reagan is gone. No one says it is "morning in America" anymore. It feels more like "lights out."

"Things are scary," says Bridget, the mother of a Pumpkin. She and her husband vote Republican, and they like Palin. But the economic meltdown has shaken their confidence.

Self-employed, they pay $12,000 a year for health insurance. With a $1,000 deductible and three kids, Bridget sometimes waits a day or two before taking a sick kid to the doctor, knowing she must pay the full cost of the visit.

Fear not easy to talk about

"That bothers me," she said. "I think, 'Does she just have a sore throat? Can we wait to see the doctor?' So am I worried? Yes, I am. I am worried about the economy and health care, and the war. Things feel more and more shaky."

Not that fear is easy to talk about.

"This being Minnesota, it's hard to get past, 'How are you? Nice day we're having,'" said Gary, another player's father. Gary was a mutual fund manager until a recent restructuring. Now, he's hoping to buy a small business and thinks the media and the politicians have "made everyone nervous." He worries that the real issues of the economic collapse -- "the shenanigans" on Wall Street -- won't be corrected.

"Maybe if we just turned the TV off and went outside we'd be less worried," he said "It's a beautiful day."

He's probably right about that.

The bailout has been approved by Congress, the election will be over in a month, and soccer Saturdays will soon give way to hockey Saturdays.

So, OK, Sarah Palin didn't wink at me, and maybe she isn't ready for Washington. But I give her credit: She knows where parents stand.

Is there fear in our voices this fall?

You betcha.

Nick Coleman • 612-673-4400 •