Ronald McDonald leans out of a flying saucer to welcome us to Roswell, New Mexico, conspiracy capital of the USA. Up the road, another billboard rears out of the dry to announce, "Chocolate milk: the official sports drink for kids".
Roswell, a Republican stronghold, was made famous in 1947 when an alien spacecraft reportedly crashed here. Said aliens have been kept from the good people of Earth by the US military, who explained the debris as a downed weather balloon.
Driving down Main Street, we find the McCain headquarters in Roswell’s extraterrestrial quarter, bordering the UFO Research Museum and a legion of alien gift stores. In its previous life, the McCain headquarters was known as the Cover-Up Café. On the outside of the building, kitsch warning signs have been painted over, except for one: "Only you can prevent mass hysteria".
The McCain office is bustling. It’s just been announced that town favourite Sarah Palin will speak here on Sunday. Disgruntled locals are being told to return at 7:00am the next morning for tickets. They thank campaign staff with "God-bless-you"s through gritted teeth.
Ever since McCain underwhelmed swing voters with his last debate performance, the spectre of a last minute game-changer from the Republican camp has loomed large on the opinion pages of the major dailies. In a town renowned for its fluency in conspiracies, we’ve come to unearth some theories regarding what is now known as the "October Surprise".
The Surprise strategy dates back to the 1980 election campaign of Ronald Reagan, whose team is said to have negotiated with Iran to delay the freeing of 52 US hostages to prevent Jimmy Carter using their release as an "October Surprise". They were eventually released on the day of Reagan’s inauguration.
We head straight for the UFO Research Museum where we’re met by EJ, a bespectacled 40-ish employee and UFO enthusiast in a purple shirt and braces. We ask him if he’s going to the rally. "I’d love to — I just love Sarah, she’s so pretty," he says, and looks to the ground. We ask him whether he has any theories on the October Surprise. He looks blank. "You know," we prompt, "the idea that the Republicans will pull something out of the bag to turn the election around. Imposing martial law and assassinating Obama are two going around."
"Well, that’s just plain crazy!" says EJ, looking startled. "But it would be okay if…" he trails off. "Well, not that, but it would be good if he got discouraged somehow." EJ then gives us a link to a YouTube video showing knee-high aliens walking across a guy’s front yard in Fresno, and goes on to explain why every invention since 1947 can be traced to the Roswell aliens.
Across the street, Gene, a man in his late 50s, runs the Roswell Landing gift store. When we prod him for a theory, he gives us a detailed history of America’s interaction with the Middle East. He believes the Republicans will pull Osama bin Laden out of the caves sometime in the next 10 days. Previously a Bush supporter, he is not a fan anymore, but will vote for McCain in November. "He’ll appoint a whole new cabinet, and none of those old people will be around," he says. "He doesn’t like them, and they don’t like him." He’s certain McCain will win, with or without an October Surprise. "The young people like Obama because he’s a bit of a pop star, but they don’t understand the issues, and most of them aren’t old enough to vote anyway," he tells us.
On Sunday morning, a steady stream of SUVs cruise up Main Street towards Roswell’s Great Southwest Aviation airport for the Palin rally. We park on the grass and join a 400-metre line stretching out into the cloudless, shadeless 30-degree heat.
Will Sarah venture no further than the Roswell tarmac?
"Read my lipstick, change is coming, Sarah’s got a gun," says a man in a bright pink t-shirt selling badges and hats. We strike up a conversation with the woman in front of us. God had apparently advised her pastor how to get close enough to Sarah to explain to her that she is in fact Esther. "You know, the lady who saved the Jews in the Bible." she says.
Talk inevitably turns to Obama. "He’s still a Muslim," she says. She knows this for certain, because if he had truly converted to Christianity, "they" would have killed him. "‘They kill all of their kind who convert," she tells us. Stranger than her tale, is her delivery, which is utterly self-assured, as though explaining how an engine functions. Any counter we offer is swept aside with warnings about "all the misinformation out there".
Finally we reach the gate to find that tickets are not required. Working our way into the crowd, we squeeze past Republicans wearing "Nobama" badges, McCain-Palin t-shirts and one lady with a shirt that reads "We joyously cling to our guns and our religion". Two mobile staircases on the tarmac lean toward the sky, awaiting Sarah’s private jet.
We try to imagine 10,000 Australians standing in the sun for hours, then waiting patiently for another hour past the scheduled arrival of a politician. These Roswellians do so without complaint and in good humour, even while they roast in the sun to Hank Williams Jr slurring through Johnny Cash covers.
Eventually the jet rolls up to the stairs amid the regulation security storm. The soundtrack snaps from ‘We Will Rock You’ to ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and there she is, holding her baby. And of course, it is precisely how it is on telly, just hotter and noisier.
The only surprise from Sarah is that, on the day Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama has rocked their campaign, she is content to trundle out the same "Joe the Plumber versus Socialist Obama" routine, and devote a fifth of her speech to special needs children. She’s not as charismatic as we expect her to be. Rather, she is exactly what they love her for — a little clumsy and awkward, but with enough passion and confidence to carry the slogans. A couple behind us comment quietly on the lack of policy detail. She ends abruptly, and most supporters leave before she’s back on the McCain-Palin jet.
After speaking with many Palin supporters, it appears that religion does not so much inform their politics as transform politics — and voting — into an act of faith. Voting is not about analysing policy but identifying with a candidate who has successfully embodied their beliefs.
The Republican base that she appeals to operates like a cult – its reasoning cannot be questioned without the questioner becoming suspicious. The sloganeering works precisely because it appeals to the idea that explaining detail is not necessary "in the America you and I believe in". McCain now finds himself in an unenviable position: he is too liberal for this base and too compromised for the centrists.
Back in Roswell, we give the October Surprise theory one last go. At last we discover some considered, analytical views. Like many Republicans we meet, Rick was a supporter of Reagen and "Daddy Bush", but is keen to see "Baby Bush" gone and forgotten. Rick’s heard most of the October Surprise theories, but thinks it’s much more likely there will be a November Surprise: voting fraud.
For him, the "October Surprise" is just another example of how elections have long since been taken over by the media circus. For its part, the media here appears to feel almost entitled to its last-minute plot twist, and will do what they can to create it if need be.
In this election, where reality so perfectly dovetails around the clichés, truth has certainly become stranger than fiction.
This article has been edited for accuracy.
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