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Presidential hopeful wows his Spokane fans

A lot of show biz has crossed the stage at the Bing, and Thursday was no different.

Fans stood in line more than an hour before showtime. Some held signs or dressed up. A tour bus lurked outside, and police rerouted traffic. When the doors opened, people flooded in, filling the ground floor immediately and then streaming up to the balcony.

The crowd buzzed and rustled, in the full flower of Spokane diversity: every kind of white. Bald old graybeards dominated, but there were plenty of teenagers, families with children in tow, people dressed in athletic spandex and backwoods flannel, blue jeans and T-shirts and ball caps. One of Spokane’s better qualities – our pronounced lack of suits and ties – shone through.

One man standing near the back refused an offer of a seat. “I’m too excited to sit,” he said.

The stage was set: three American flags, three Washington state flags and a podium. The opening act was decent, but the headliner really got the crowd worked up. Afterward came the euphoria that follows a great performance.

“This guy is just remarkable!” one fan enthused to another.

“He is!” answered his compatriot. “Remarkable!”

All told, Newt Fest lasted about an hour. It was not without ideas, but ideas were not really the point. Not the point of Newt Fest or political rallies in general. The point is to engage emotionally, to sell the brand, to give the choir a rousing sermon, to raise money. To pose for photos and encourage supportive tweeting.

Show biz.

“The crowds are usually fun, and seeing (the candidates) is fun,” said Emily Boudreau, one of a group of Central Valley High students who have been going to our recent spate of GOP rallies together.

The friends are 17 or 18, heading into their first election as voters.

“I’ll be 18 in time for the election,” said Kelsey Glynn. “I’m very excited. I just registered.”

Near the front of the line before the rally was Robert Harwell, a 39-year-old from Coeur d’Alene and an Obama supporter.

“I just want to hear what he has to say,” said Harwell. “It’s a great opportunity to see someone who’s on TV – to see them in person.”

Most of the crowd was more into Newt, of course, though I’m told the passion was greater for both Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Still, there was Kyong Swartout, decked out in a spangly red-white-and-blue vest and hat, and unequivocally excited.

“I bought this for Newt Gingrich,” she said. “I want to get my picture taken with him.”

What does she love about Newt? “Everything!”

Her husband, Dennis Swartout, elaborated: “Newt is a tough guy. I think there are some tough things that need to be done. … He’s no angel, but that’s not what we need in Washington, D.C.”

Colleen Ancel stood holding a Newt sign at the corner of Sprague Avenue and Lincoln Street.

“It’s wonderful to be able to see him in person and shake his hand,” she said. “We’ve been Newt supporters for years and years, since the Contract with America.”

Among the true believers, the enthusiasm and interest in Newt and his wife, Callista, as personalities was palpable. Kind of like it was for Matthew Modine – the same celebrity vibe. That’s what I thought when Susan Wilmoth, a leader with the Spokane County Republican Party, introduced the opening act with a kind of pinch-me enthusiasm: “I grew up in Greenacres, and I can’t believe I’m standing here getting ready to introduce you to Callista Gingrich!”

It wasn’t all giddy love. Jim Ogden, a 41-year-old truck driver from Spokane Valley, said, “I’m here to support the conservative movement. I feel our country’s going in the wrong direction. … Newt is not my guy, but he’s on my team.”

And then the show … was the show. Hello, Spokane. Obligatory standing ovations at beginning and end. Newt dropped a quick local reference – to the fact that “Oklahoma” is being performed here – and played his greatest hits: Obama is dangerous, Obama has raised gas prices, Obama truckles to frightening Muslims, Obama …

The crowd gobbled it up. As Gingrich wondered, rhetorically, just why it was that Obama failed to understand how to bring down gas prices, a man in front of me leaned to his neighbor and said, “Because he hates America.” His neighbor nodded.

People held their phones aloft, trying for pictures. They cheered and cheered. Afterward, they crowded forward to shake the hand of the man they’d come to see, to get a picture, to enter his presence.

“Anybody that listens to reason – he is just the most articulate speaker!” exclaimed one fan.

“He’s amazing,” agreed a companion. “He really is amazing.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.