12-10-2016  4:18 pm      •     

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama filled Boise State University's basketball arena with about 14,000 people Saturday morning during the Illinois senator's swing through a state long considered one of America's most Republican strongholds.
"They told me there weren't any Democrats in Idaho," Obama said, after arriving to wild cheering and the rock music of the band U2. "I did not believe them."
Obama's Idaho excursion comes just four days before "Super Tuesday," when the state is among 23 others to hold primaries or caucuses.
Idaho is on the frontier of America, and Idaho Democrats often feel they are on the frontier of politics in a place that overwhelmingly backed President Bush in 2004 and where everybody in statewide elected office is a Republican. Those who attended the rally were hungry for a share of the national election spotlight, after years of being written off as insignificant players in deciding who will be the next president.
Jose Carranza, of Caldwell, a 30-year-old first-generation American citizen originally from Mexico, was a little astounded at the turnout -- especially given that Obama began speaking about 9 a.m., well before many people even venture out of bed on the weekend.
"We never have a chance to see a national candidate," Carranza said, scanning the filled seats. "I'm surprised. This is a mostly Republican state."
Obama supporters have opened five campaign offices in Idaho. He announced his trip to Boise this week, coming to the state only after a previously scheduled campaign event in Utah had to be canceled to make way for the funeral of Mormon President Gordon Hinckley.
His chief rival for the nomination, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, R-N.Y., doesn't have an office in Idaho, though Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from neighboring Washington state, was in Boise Friday for a small Clinton campaign event.
Obama's 44-minute stump speech hit all his talking points.
He pledged to have U.S. troops out of Iraq by 2009, enact universal healthcare coverage by the end of his first term and give tax breaks to businesses that create jobs in the United States rather than moving to other countries. Obama promised to restore U.S. stature abroad, blaming President Bush's administration for alienating foreign governments.
"If you are ready for change, then we can have a foreign policy that realizes there is no contradiction between our safety and our security and our standing in the world," Obama said.
He mentioned Idaho or issues important to many of the state's residents on several occasions.
He acknowledged the Borah High School Fighting Lions marching band members who played before the event, spoke in support of 2nd Amendment gun rights in a state where there are thousands of hunters, and expressed sadness at the death of Hinckley. In Idaho, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the largest religion.
The address also included a miscue Idaho residents are familiar with. When he talked about unfounded rumors that he's a Muslim -- Obama is a Christian -- he mixed up Idaho with Iowa, where he won the primary in Jan. 3.
"There are those smear campaigns. I don't know if they've trickled up to Iowa," he said, before quickly correcting himself. "Idaho. I know where I'm at."
Former Idaho Republican Lt. Gov. David Leroy, who attended the event as a commentator for a local Boise radio station, said the mistake was understandable, given Obama's busy campaign schedule. This afternoon, he'll speak in Minnesota, before a planned evening event in St. Louis.
"It showed that as with most people on an endless junket, you can always lose reference in a careless moment," said Leroy, who was otherwise impressed with the speech -- and the reception Obama received.
In particular, Leroy noted that the loudest applause the candidate received came when Obama pointed out that President Bush would not be on the ballot in November. The audience exploded in cheers.
"It was a spectacular address from a technical politics point of view, to a wildly receptive crowd," Leroy said. "It was a fair warning to Republicans like me. Critics who say he does not have the sufficient substance to go with his general concepts of hope and change didn't see this speech."
Like many Obama crowds, it included many college students.
Chadwick Pearsall, 19, Ryan Manley, 18, and John Crabill, 18, all three students at the Protestant Northwest Nazarene University in Caldwell, Idaho, arrived together in a car in darkness, to make sure they got inside.
"If you're a Democrat in Idaho, it can be tempting to feel like your vote doesn't count," Manley said. "This is a great opportunity."
Jake Chouinard, a 25-year-old electrician and union member from Boise, said he's taking part in the caucus process for the first time Tuesday. Obama has an allure other candidates don't, Chouinard said.
"In the last election, I had a hard time supporting anybody," he said.
In addition to about 13,000 people who sat in the regular seating that extended to the rafters, about 1,000 people received special passes to gather on the floor at the foot of the stage where Obama spoke. They included campaign volunteers, Democratic Party officials and invited guests.
In exchange for the 1 1/2 hours Boise resident Andrea Rothstein spent at Obama's Boise headquarters last week calling likely voters to encourage them to go to Tuesday's caucus, she received an extra ticket that she shared with a friend.
"There was no way I was coming with my husband," Rothstein said. "He's a Republican."

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