Reporting from Washington — The moment Shawna Riley heard Jon Stewart lay out his plans to hold a "Rally to Restore Sanity" on Oct. 30 on the National Mall, she raced to get online and book her hotel and airline tickets.
The 41-year-old owner of an advertising firm, who lives in Marble Falls, Texas, described the event as "one of those we-got-to-be-there moments."
"I think people are going to be pouring in from around the country," she said. "We're tired of the fear-mongering in the mainstream media."
Stewart's event — for people "who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive and terrible for your throat," according to the rally website — is the comedian's latest gambit to send up today's overwrought political discourse. This time, he is keying off the "Restoring Honor" rally hosted by conservative commentator Glenn Beck last month. Stewart's faux nemesis, fellow Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert, will hold a counter-protest, a "March to Keep Fear Alive," at the same time.
But their fans are not taking it as a joke. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 132,000 people planned to attend, according to the event's Facebook page, while satellite rallies were being organized in Chicago, Seattle, Austin and other cities.
"I know people like me are frustrated at seeing what's going on with the 'tea party' and the amount of press they're getting," said Jim Baum, 55, a private building inspector and farmer who is organizing a "Rally to Restore Sanity" in Seattle. "It's getting shown as if it's more of a trend nationally than it actually is. A lot of us would like to counter those people."
But Stewart, of course, is a comedian, not a political leader, and it remains unclear exactly what his fans are going to get when they assemble on the National Mall. While the event is still in the planning stages, people familiar with the discussions said it would be about entertainment, not a political call to action.
Still, in hosting the rally, Stewart appears to be moving closer to participating in the very establishment he lampoons. And the response to the event speaks to his influence on the country's political culture.
"I think this puts him in the powerhouse in a new way," said Lorrie Sparrow, 45, a business analyst, who plans to drive all night from Xenia, Ohio, to attend the event with two friends and her 8-year-old son. "We tread lightly, but he does truly wield a big stick in his fan base."
Sparrow said her son chose to see Stewart over going trick-or-treating. "I told him something like this might be like Woodstock — you might be able to say, 'I was at the Rally to Restore Sanity,' " she said.
The weekend before the election is a key period for local get-out-the-vote operations, and having thousands of people in Washington could sap those efforts.
But a Democratic Party official insisted that the rally would be a boost, adding: "Getting people engaged can only help."
Some details need to be worked out. The National Park Service still needs more information about security, transportation and crowd estimates before deciding whether to approve the gathering, said spokesman Bill Line.