HERMANTOWN, MINN. – In his first stop Thursday on a swing through northern Minnesota, Todd Palin talked about the Alaska-like chill in the air and his support of gun rights and U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, for whom the National Rifle Association had staged the rally and invited Palin as “special guest.”

In remarks that were brief and friendly, Palin, husband of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, did not explicitly make a plea for voters to rally behind the McCain-Palin ticket. His only reference to their bid for the nation’s highest offices was to say it had been a “roller-coaster” and a “great adventure.”

Instead, the oil-worker and champion snowmobile racer whom Alaska Gov. Palin affectionately calls her “first dude” focused on the common ground they share with Minnesotans with regard to outdoor recreation.

“Minnesotans and Alaskans share a lot of qualities — the hunting and fishing, and of course our Second Amendment rights,” said Palin, who spoke for less than three minutes at a “Sportsmen for Coleman” rally outside the Gander Mountain store in this Duluth suburb.

Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, used the rally to announce the organization’s endorsement of Coleman in his Senate race. Coleman was in Duluth for a debate Thursday evening with challengers Al Franken, a Democrat, and Dean Barkley of the Independence Party.

More than 500 Republican faithful attended the Coleman-Palin rally, which also attracted several dozen Obama-Biden supporters carrying protest signs, who were kept at a distance. Both crowds seemed largely respectful, and no incidents were reported.
For atmosphere, a logging truck parked near the speakers’ platform had a large banner  reading, “Let’s turn Washington, D.C., into a Hockey Rink!” Sarah Palin, of course, has described herself as a “hockey mom.”

Todd Palin thanked La­Pierre and the NRA for its work and said Coleman, whose wife, Laurie, stood alongside him on the platform, deserves to be reelected in part for his work to protect gun rights. Another supporter held a sign that said, “Three things keep us free: God, Guns, and Sarah.”

“The Second Amendment isn’t just another amendment,” Palin said. “It’s a right to stand up for and protect.” 

He is touring northern Minnesota with friend and racing partner Scott Davis, a Grand Rapids native. After Hermantown, they had stops scheduled in Grand Rapids and Bemidji on Thursday and, on Friday, were scheduled to tour the Arctic Cat factory in Thief River Falls and then go to Moorhead. 

Voices in the crowd
Ron Anderson of Cloquet said he attended the rally to show support for Palin, Coleman, and Republicans, in general.

“Considering we’re in kind of a liberal stronghold around here, it’s important to show up,” Anderson said. “When I saw in the paper that protesters were coming, my wife said ‘I guess you’ve got to go now.’”  Another attendee, William Krueger of Carlton, said he supports McCain-Palin because “I don’t want a socialist in the White House — it’s that simple.”

Gordon Smith, a union organizer from Hibbing, said he protested because he “wanted to show there are a lot of people for Obama who are sportsmen, too. I hunt, and I’m not worried that Obama is going to take away my guns.”

Protester Joanne Unzen of Moose Lake said she was “offended” that Gander Mountain asked Hermantown police to keep them off store property, including the parking lot. “My husband and three sons hunt, and I’ve bought gifts here; well, no more,” she said.

Hermantown Police Chief Mike Anderson confirmed the store requested that police keep protesters back, to avoid any conflicts in the crowd. He said there were no incidents or arrests.
David Ewald, a spokesman for St. Paul-based Gander Mountain, said the company allows certain civic events, including political rallies, provided they promote outdoor recreation. Asked if  Obama-supporting sportsmen could to rally there, Ewald asked: “Does such a group exist?”

According to the Obama campaign, Ray Shoenke, founder and president of a group called the American Hunters and Shooters Association, was doing his own tour of northern Minnesota on Thursday to ask fellow sportsmen to support Obama.

The campaign said Shoenke, a retired NFL player, is spreading the message that Obama supports the Second Amendment and would expand opportunities for hunting and fishing through an “aggressive conservation agenda.”

Informed of Shoenke’s group, Ewald said,: “To the extent they meet the guidelines, they’d be welcome” at Gander Mountain.Larry Oakes • 612-269-0504