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Opinion: John McCain and Sarah Palin in Virginia: How big was that crowd?

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One of the many, many imprecise aspects of daily journalism is estimating a crowd size -- especially when the gathering is large and sprawling. In such cases, reporters learn early not to hazard a guess of their own but to rely instead on officialdom.

But sometimes -- in another sign of the vagaries of pinning down a count at an event for which tickets haven’t been allotted -- the figures from the local authorities vary.

Such was the case Wednesday as John McCain and Sarah Palin wrapped up the road tour that took them to several states since the Republican National Convention ended a week ago.

The GOP presidential ticket ventured into the heavily Democratic Virginia suburbs adjacent to Washington before Palin returned to a heroine’s welcome in her home state of Alaska later in the day. As with every previous appearance the pair made, a boisterous and undeniably big audience greeted them at the Virgina rally.

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But exactly how big? Most news reports, such as CNN’s, went with the police estimate of at least 23,000 (a number eagerly embraced by the McCain camp).

The New York Times, though, used in its story the reckoning from fire marshals: 15,000.

Meanwhile, Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, a columnist for the paper’s local section, wrote that he counted it at 8,000 (though he also noted the 23,000 police estimate).

Regardless, as Fisher relates, there wasn’t much question who the star of the show was.

-- Don Frederick


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