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Mitt Romney rallies electric crowds in Idaho

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IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — On the Mitt Romney campaign, this qualified as surreal.

Gerald Herbert

Associated Press

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally at Skyline High School in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Thursday, March 1, 2012.

The presidential candidate who critics say can’t excite Republicans did just that Thursday afternoon when he touched down in Idaho for a quick rally. He strode into the Skyline High School gymnasium to the whoops of more than 1,200 supporters. In the snowy parking lot outside, a thousand more stood in line waiting to assemble in a second, overflow gymnasium.

The school’s marching band played Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” When Romney gave his stump speech (twice — a speech for each gym), the electric crowds were so loud you couldn’t hear some of his lines. One woman held up a sign that read: “MITT IS BRINGING SEXY BACK.”

Ford Field this was not.

For one afternoon at least, the Dudley Do-Right of the presidential race transformed into a rock star. If there’s such a thing as Mitt Mania, this was it.

“You seem to be more than slightly inclined to support my candidacy,” Romney said. “Is that right?”

The crowd’s cheers gave him his answer.

“I want you to know that I don’t need a lot,” Romney added. “I just need you to go out and vote. I want to make sure we win, we win solidly in Idaho, that I get the delegates I need to go on and win the nomination. Will you do that for me?”

In Idaho’s primary, scheduled for Super Tuesday next week, Romney is considered the favorite, thanks partly to the state’s heavy Mormon population as well as to the goodwill he earned across the Rocky Mountain region from his work running the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

Other candidates — including Romney’s top rival, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum — have campaigned heavily here in Idaho in recent weeks. But Romney is counting on a win in Idaho, where 32 delegates are up for grabs and are likely to be awarded winner-takes-all.

“We want to send a message loud and clear that I’m the guy you think ought to defeat Barack Obama in the fall,” Romney told the overflow rally.

For Romney — as well as for his traveling aides, who expressed disbelief at both the size and enthusiasm of the crowds — the Idaho Falls event was welcome news. Last week, Romney earned embarrassing headlines when he gave an economic speech to just 1,200 people on the astroturf of Detroit’s Ford Field. The NFL stadium seats 65,000 people, and the stadium seats were empty.

Thursday, however, was a different story. “I’ll tell ya,” Romney said, “that kind of cheering is exciting!”

Romney grew nostalgic recalling a boyhood visit to Idaho. He came here when he was 15 to work as a ranch hand on his uncle’s ranch in King Hill.

“He thought that somehow if he bought this ranch in King Hill, he’d get all that water that came from Thousand Springs,” Romney said. “Well, it didn’t happen. We worked hard. But I loved the life here in Idaho. I loved the working on the ranch. I loved the people that I got to meet.”

“We love you Mitt!” someone shouted from the crowd.

“Thank you,” he said. “My dad was here as a boy as well. He said he had potatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He was kind of poor at that time, but he ended up doing pretty darn well. He believed in America.”

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