by JACOB H. FRIES, KEVIN TAYLOR and TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or a moment, we were the center of the universe. CNN beamed images from right here in Spokane. The world was watching, waiting with bated breath for the results of the caucuses. People cared. Hillary Clinton spoke about the importance of Fairchild Air Force Base. Michelle Obama talked about the plight of "regular folks" just like us.

It was nice while it lasted.

Back Then

Every last seat of the Fox Theater -- 1,600 in all -- was occupied last Friday. Another 100 people crammed into the lobby and yet 100 more stood outside, refusing to leave. They came to see Michelle Obama, wife of Barack. They wanted to hear her husband's uplifting message of hope. But could she pull it off?

She started out talking about her father: A blue-collar worker, a shift worker, a father who, on a single salary, shouldered a family of four. "Because you could do that back then."

Because you could do that back then. She started slow, offering a glimpse of her father who had multiple sclerosis "contracted in the prime of his life. ... I know he felt fear every day that he couldn't get up and take care of the family that depended on him."

The country is filled with men and women like her father, she said, who never voice those fears, never make excuses, who struggle onward, "so they can help the next generation aspire to things they can only dream of." Her own father, without higher education himself, sent not one but two children to Princeton, "and he wrote those checks every semester with pride," she said.

Because you could do that back then.

With some tear-streaked faces, the crowd of 1,600 rose to its feet -- eight times in the hour. It was a message not of policy points, but rather of paradigm shifts to fight disparity of wealth.

In a generation, America has lost the fruits of "back then." Good-paying jobs that allow one parent to stay home with the kids are scant. Both parents work. Grandparents can't pitch in; they still work to augment inadequate pensions. Parents today find it hard to start saving for their children's college tuition while still paying off their own.

"Barack and I paid off our loans three years ago," Michelle Obama said.

"How do you get ahead?" she asked. "You don't. ... People can't get out from under. They can't get out from under."

She began to weave strands of her story, her husband's story, your story, my story. It was as if a wound suddenly became visible; a wound hidden under the folds of a life spent hanging on by fingernails, a life "that puts dreams out of reach," she said.

Her words sent a shiver across the theater.

"I looked across the audience and saw people wiping tears away," said Mary Daugharty, a 70-year-old who entered the Fox a strong Hillary Clinton supporter and who came out vowing to support Obama at the next day's caucus. "Very powerful." (KT)

Hillary's Turn

For most of her half-hour speech, Clinton slowly spun clockwise on a raised platform, making eye contact with the crowd encircling her at the West Central Community Center last Friday. The device drew people in, made them feel connected. Clinton had already hit the right political erogenous zones -- defending Fairchild, promoting green energy, talking up college grants. And as she was winding down, she wanted everyone to know that she would not soon forget their time together.

Then, the line: "I will remember coming to Spokane, driving down the streets and seeing there's lots of work to be done here."

Taken the wrong way, it could have been an insult, a poke in the eye, a ha-ha, your city -- especially its streets -- reminds me of Beirut circa 1980. But with the crowd already swooning, the remark landed to loud cheers and laughter. She gets us.


"We love you!"

"You can do it!"

Earlier, standing in line outside, Gary Swartz, a 43-year-old machinist from Otis Orchards, summed up his support for Clinton. "In my opinion, it took a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush, and it's going to take another Clinton to clean up after the second one," he said, bringing smiles to the faces of the folks next in line. He added that she has the experience to lead. But would Swartz support Obama if he received the nomination?

No hesitation. "Blue runs through our veins," he says. (JF)

What the world thinks

With the candidates came the media and national attention. Sometimes, it was flattering. Other times, not so much. Either way, it gives insight into how the world views us.

& lt;li & William Yardley, Feb. 8, New York Times: "Loggers, bloggers, farmers and philanthropists. Political relevance does not come around often for the distinctive mix of constituencies that keeps things lively here in the other Washington." & lt;/li &

& lt;li & Jessica Yellin, Feb. 9, CNN: "What I would like to emphasize here is the degree of enthusiasm we've seen. We were at a caucus site that basically ran out of paper. ... [In Seattle] people here saying that they're so upset with the state of the country, the state of the United States' position in the war, et cetera, in a very liberal area here, that they wanted to make their voices heard." & lt;/li &

& lt;li & Tim Egan, Feb. 6, New York Times: "Take a look at what happened on Tuesday [Feb. 5] in the nearly all-white counties of Idaho, a place where the Aryan Nations once placed a boot print of hate -- 'the international headquarters of the white race,' as they called it.

"The neo-Nazis are long gone. But in Kootenai County, where the extremists were holed up for several decades, a record number of Democrats trudged through heavy snow on Super Duper Tuesday to help pick the next president. Guess what: Senator Barack Obama took 81 percent of Kootenai County." & lt;/li &

& lt;li & Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr., Feb. 9, Washington Post: "[Obama's] campaign views Washington state as an ideal playing field, well-stocked with the kinds of voters -- professionals and the young -- who have flocked to the senator from Illinois in previous contests." (JF) & lt;/li &

Ron Paul Country

Statewide, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, placed third in Washington's caucus -- grabbing a little more than 20 percent -- behind John McCain and Mike Huckabee. In Spokane County, however, he won in what can only be described as a sweeping landslide. Paul scored 46 percent -- more than McCain, Huckabee and Romney combined. What is it about this side of the state that makes people swoon for Paul like he was a Beatle?

"I don't know," says Curt Fackler, the head of Spokane County Republicans. "People in this area are dissatisfied with the status quo. They like someone who talks straight. I remember people here went for Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan. ... We have got a little bit different look on things."

Of course, it didn't hurt that Paul actually came to Eastern Washington. He spoke at the downtown Doubletree Hotel on Jan. 31 and drew a crowd of more than 1,000. To put that number in perspective, less than 2,000 Spokane County Republicans turned out for Saturday's caucus.

"The fact he made the effort to come here was big," Fackler says. "That was the difference. He came over, had a rally and I bet half or three quarters of those people showed up at the caucus." (JF)

Raucous Caucus

Now we know how all those Iraqis felt. Nobody got purple ink on their fingers, but last Saturday it did feel like risking death to cast a vote, as we drove into what was once a parking lot at Chase Middle School on Spokane's South Hill. Anxious Democrats nosed their hybrids around cliffs of ice and through lakes of melt-off to get in on the action.

We were greeted at the door by two volunteers handing out stickers for either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. "Another one for Obama," we heard one volunteer gently taunt the other, "so sorry."

Inside the school cafeteria, it was mayhem, as people shed their parkas in the suddenly steamy air, wandering around to find their precinct in the various corners of the room. It was a kind of coming out party, as you could see your neighbors' true colors. "Wow, I had no idea she was a Democrat," I heard one woman whisper to her friend.

The energy in the room had a pent-up vibe -- after all, Spokane County killed the tradition of actually voting in a place where you might see your fellow citizens. And when somebody grabbed a microphone and welcomed the crowd to "the first step in picking a new president," a cheer erupted that had seven years of anti-Bush steam behind it.

Initially, we were instructed to fill in our preference for president and the tally was announced -- 67 for Obama and 24 for Clinton. (Our precinct had 96 voters, as compared to 36 in 2004.) Then it was time for the speechifying. The whole process seemed to culminate in this moment, when advocates of either candidate would try to convince the other side to switch. But then the precinct captain, whose voice was so soft she had to relay messages through a barker, said each side would get one minute. One lousy minute? Kind of a let-down. There was confusion, some consulting of the rules -- our precinct secretary had to borrow somebody's watch... and a pen. These are Democrats, after all, delightfully disorganized.

The youth movement was alive and well, as what appeared to be a 17-year-old climbed up and told us "the country is at a crossroads" while wildly chopping his hand in front of him and staring at the floor. Two other Obama supporters got 20 seconds each as well. Hillary Clinton's advocate was very good, but it didn't seem to help. When the second tally was taken (you can switch your vote after the speeches), Obama had claimed 71 voters, picking up four converts. Our precinct gave out nine delegates to the Spokane County convention to Obama, while Clinton got three.

One couple who came in backing Clinton left as Obama supporters. "The Republicans have already picked McCain," the woman told me, "so I guess we need to decide, too."

Back in the war zone of a parking lot, people smiled and waved, showing their party unity by letting other drivers pass in front of them. And in place of those purple fingers, everybody seemed to leave their Obama or Hillary stickers on. (TSM)

Witness to Wartime: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through May 16
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