by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & o Spokane's first visit from a 2008 presidential candidate was by a guy who has virtually no chance of winning his party's nomination. Still, it's hard to imagine Hillary Clinton, John McCain or Barack Obama getting a bigger reception than the one Texas U.S. Representative Ron Paul received last Thursday.

About a half hour before Paul's scheduled arrival, people began trickling into a Doubletree Inn ballroom. And for the next hour they kept coming -- more than a thousand of them. Many drove through the snow from rural areas like Grangeville, Idaho, and Colville, Wash.

Bill Crippen held his young daughter as he waited for the candidate to arrive. "I've always voted Republican," said Crippen. "But when we went to war and the Patriot Act was passed... I became a Paul supporter." (Paul says, if elected, he would immediately bring American troops home from Iraq.)

Others knew little about Paul and came to learn more. One couple -- Obama supporters -- sat in the back against the wall to see what Paul was all about.

Tierney McNeiece spotted Paul on Jay Leno's Tonight Show on New Year's Eve: "I remember how he spoke, although I really didn't hear much about his views."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & s people filed in, rally organizers led folks through a half-hearted round of patriotic songs. Then co-organizer Rob Chase encouraged participants to attend their local GOP caucuses on Saturday, Feb. 9.

"You have three ways you can help Ron Paul," said Chase. "You can go to your caucus and try to convince people to join you in voting for Ron Paul. You can sign up to canvass neighborhoods. Or you can vote for Ron Paul in the Feb. 19 primary."

A series of speakers got on their soapboxes. One who called himself Chris read quotes from America's Founding Fathers as he supported Paul's call to eliminate the Federal Reserve System and the federal income tax. And he claimed the media -- local and national -- were ignoring Paul. Another urged people to get on their cellphones and call the local TV newsrooms.

By this time the crowd was primed for the main event. When Paul appeared, people cheered wildly, waving their "Ron Paul for President" signs. The candidate -- joined by his wife and two grandchildren -- seemed genuinely tickled by the reception.

"Something has happened over the last year. I was reluctant to become a candidate. I didn't know if enough new people were interested in what I had to say, but it's clear this movement is going to continue," Paul said to cheers.

"This country is in bad shape and we need to do something drastic about it," he continued. "Young people understand that we're incurring a lot of debt and that they bear the burden of our foreign policy. They realize something has to give."

Paul ad-libbed as he moved through his other themes: War or not, Americans' civil liberties should not suffer. Governments have taken away the rights of property owners to do what they want with their land. The U.S. doesn't need a federal income tax. Oh, and by the way, the country's going broke.

"We're not bankrupt yet; the public still trusts our military and economic systems, but we couldn't come close to paying off our obligations," said Paul.

"Here's my plan," he continued. "We don't need to cut government benefits to people, we just need to stop spending overseas, bring all of our troops home. We're taxed to blow up bridges in Iraq, then we're taxed to rebuild them as our bridges at home fall down around us. We would have a stronger dollar and an improved sense of confidence. We'd lower our national debt. We'd have a year or so of [economic] correction, but if government can get out of the way and restore our freedoms, we'd soon be back on our feet."

The crowd loved it. One man in front of me -- apparently a supporter of another candidate -- turned around and said, "I could be a Ron Paul guy."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & P & lt;/span & aul's running fourth in what is now a four-man Republican presidential race. His chances of winning his party's nomination are virtually nil. But, strangely, he has a better chance of continuing his presidential race than, say, Mike Huckabee.

The Libertarian Party, for whom he ran for president in 1988, and the Constitution Party both covet him as their presidential nominee.

"He says [if he isn't the GOP nominee], he's 99.9 percent done," says Rob Chase. "But he says he'll keep the door open a crack. If he does run, he may be better off running as an independent candidate."

For now, though, Chase and the other Paul supporters are focused on winning Republican delegates in this month's Washington caucus and primary.

"He's predictable," says Chase. "People understand what he stands for, like they knew what Ronald Reagan stood for."

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