After a long wait under a hot Virginia sun, her heartland supporters wanted red meat. Instead, Sarah Palin served up soft soap. As she strode onto the stage in Richmond, the capital of a proudly Republican Virginia now at risk of falling to the Democrats for the first time in more than 40 years, it was clear the attack dog was back on the leash. After a week of attacks on the character of Barack Obama, she lowered the temperature on Monday. There were no references to his 'palling around with terrorists' or to him 'not being an American like you and I'. It is apparently all part of yet another new strategy by her boss, John McCain, as he struggles to find a way to get back into the race for the White House with less than three weeks to go. Senator McCain was due to appear with Mrs Palin. Instead, he sped to neighbouring North Carolina to shore up support in another southern state that could be, until recently, safely ignored by Republican presidential candidates in the closing stages of an election. It was left to country-blues singer Hank Williams Jnr to deliver some of the more stinging barbs to a crowd of about 20,000 supporters gathered on the grounds of the Richmond International Raceway. He belted out the national anthem before performing his latest ditty, The McCain-Palin Tradition. 'They're just like you and old Hank,' Williams sang in a heavy twang in a cowboy hat to screams of approval. 'They don't have a radical friend with whom they're linked,' he crooned. Like other speakers, he lashed out at the 'liberal' media and pollsters, some of whom are now putting Senator Obama ahead in a state considered a stronghold a few months ago. 'They may say we're singing to the choir, but we're going to take you higher,' Williams told the crowd. Whether Mrs Palin gave her fans exactly what they wanted to hear was another matter. Wandering among the crowd before the event, it was clear many had turned up to hear her take the fight to Senator Obama. 'We love her because she is honest,' said Jools Carter, a 50-year-old housewife who said she was attending her first political rally. 'She's one of us,' she said, a phrase that was frequently heard. 'And that means we don't want her silenced. Someone's got to stand up and tell the truth about that man from Illinois.' Others had richer descriptions, describing the senator as a closet 'Marxist communist' who was hiding his real intentions. The banners and slogans in the crowd ranged from a sign reading 'Triplets for Palin' and biblical quotations to a T-shirt proclaiming: 'The difference between Obama and Osama is just a little 'bs'.' Another Richmond woman, Dottie Tinsley, said she believed Senator Obama was probably a decent enough man but 'unknown'. The appeal of the Alaska governor was exactly what loyal Republicans wanted. 'Win or lose, we all hope she's going to be with us for a long time. Sarah Palin is our future,' she said. When she took the stage, Mrs Palin's voice, reedy and high pitched, was frequently drowned out by chants and cheering. She did mention 'anger at voting fraud' but offered no elaboration, instead replacing character attacks with policies. Mrs Palin spoke of job creation efforts, first by liberating small businesses from taxes 'to get this economy back on track', and also by intensive mining and use of 'clean coal'. 'It is not just 'Drill, Baby, Drill',' she said, but 'Mine, Baby, Mine' - a hugely popular sentiment in a crowd that included people who had travelled from the dying Appalachian coal towns of West Virginia. She had some supporters in tears as she spoke of her promises to help handicapped children, referring to the recent birth of her son with Down's syndrome. 'Yes, I was scared,' said Mrs Palin, an evangelical Christian. 'But we've come to realise we've been blessed. We'll learn from him more than he will ever learn from us. 'They are not the world's standards, they are God's.' Notions of patriotism, religion and politics were intertwined from the start. The rally began with the Pledge of Allegiance - 'one Nation under God, indivisible'. This was followed with a prayer that sought guidance 'so people may find it in their hearts' to support Mrs Palin and Senator McCain. Just a few kilometres away they were also reflecting on hard times. In Richmond's gritty downtown, few had much time for Mrs Palin. 'She's got to be careful what she says here in Virginia about Obama,' said Phil Loach, a local cleaner, as he walked up Walnut Street. 'Black or white, green or blue, Republican or Democrat, he's bringing us together in this state and getting everyone hopeful again. 'Everyone can see he's the man with the class to do it. McCain's a good man but this Palin's putting us all back there again with all this division. 'Many of us know what her bad-mouthing's about. You won't see many black folks out there today.' Mr Loach was correct: black Americans were largely conspicuous by their absence at the racetrack. Out at the raceway, however, Mrs Palin was in her element after her speech. Hundreds of fans thronged her. Flanked by husband Todd Palin and Williams, she patted babies and signed banners for nearly an hour. 'Any other politician would be already on the bus and out of here,' said one onlooker. 'But not our Sarah. She's acting as if she's got all the time in the world.'