Obama on tour

On the stump in Philly, the could-be presidential contender outshines other Democratic stars and wows the crowd.

Topics: 2006 Elections, 2008 Elections, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Rick Santorum,

Obama on tour

The Democratic Party brought its rock stars to the Philadelphia suburbs on Saturday, stumping for candidates in crucial House races and for Bob Casey Jr., who appears likely to defeat conservative Rick Santorum, a member of the Senate Republican leadership.

Early in the day, the marquee name was a heated Al Gore, sounding like Anger-Me-Elmo at a rally in Delaware County, where he declared a need for candidates “who will actually uphold the oath of office … represent the people who put them there … and not be a rubber stamp!”

By late afternoon, the party bus had rolled up to the old Keswick Theatre in Montgomery County and Gore had moved on. Here, Pennsylvania pols like Casey, Gov. Ed Rendell and congressional candidate Patrick Murphy were joined by a new batch of special guests. People on line were whispering that Nancy Pelosi was going to make an appearance. But even the woman who could soon become speaker of the House was a B-lister compared to her scheduled podium-buddy. It was a more racially mixed crowd than one might expect in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia, solidly middle-class and heavy on 30-somethings with kids, and they were all there to see a first-term Illinois senator who is not running for anything on Tuesday.

“I’m here for Obama,” said Doug Crompton, 56, waiting to get into the theater, and sporting a “Bush Is Listening: Use Big Words” button. Crompton echoed the sentiments of nearly everyone on line. “Recently I’ve felt like I was voting for the lesser of two evils,” said Christal Watson, 34. “Barack’s [2004] convention speech brought tears to my eyes. He’s so exciting! He’s the new John F. Kennedy.”

Ellen Downey, 45, had traveled with her husband Joe from neighboring Bucks County. Why? “My husband told me Obama was going to be here and I just think he’s great,” she said. “He’s progressive without being radical, he can represent the middle, moderate portion of the party. He seems like a reasonable, pragmatic person, and I just think there’s a lot of reason to be hopeful about him in ’08 and beyond.”

A few maintained a wait-and-see attitude. “I’m from the Roosevelt era,” said 82-year-old John Hill, a retired African-American engineer and World War II veteran. “I want substance.” Obama, he said, is unproven. “Lights are flashing and rockets are blasting but I’m not impressed. I’ve seen it before.”

The flashing lights and blasting rockets were just a few minutes away, as more than 1,500 people filled the auditorium in a suburb that 20 years ago was solidly Republican. Amid the placards for Casey, Rendell and local state Rep. Josh Shapiro were people in “Run, Obama, Run” sweat shirts and “Hot Chicks Dig Obama” buttons.

But before Obama came the lesser politicians whose names will actually be on ballots on Tuesday.

State Rep. Josh Shapiro, favored to win his second term, is a rising star in Pennsylvania. He sounded like a politician whose ambitions are more than local as he talked about “safer homeland security, a plan to end the war in Iraq, and a foreign relations that unites us with our allies once again.” Shapiro stumped for would-be Democratic colleagues in Harrisburg, including LeAnna Washington, who rather boldly declared that the plan for ’08 includes telling “George Bush his brother is dead meat!”

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The real beneficiary of the rally, however, was meant to be congressional candidate Patrick Murphy, a constitutional law professor and Iraq war vet who’s battling to take a House seat away from first-term incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick. Murphy was recently endorsed by Michael J. Fox for supporting all forms of stem cell research, and — undoubtedly because his race is one of the tightest in the state — was clearly the pet project of everyone who spoke on Saturday.

Murphy described his time in Baghdad as part of the 82nd Airborne division. In a thick Philly accent, he said, “When I was running convoys up and down what we called ‘ambush alley’ in 138-degree heat in a Humvee without any doors, let alone armor, and I’d hear our president say, ‘If the commanders on the ground need more troops, we’ll give them more troops,’ I knew he wasn’t being honest with us.”

Nancy Pelosi kvelled over Murphy, hailing his “great patriotism” in Iraq, “his knowledge as a teacher” and his role as “a young man and a voice for his generation.” Pelosi also vowed that “If, God willing, we take back Congress for the American people, and if I have the honor of representing the House Democrats as speaker of the House, I will take that gavel from the speaker who has wielded it for special interests. And every time we use it, it will be for all of America’s children.” Here there was laughter from the crowd, perhaps because Pelosi was talking about Dennis Hastert and minors in the same breath.

In turn, Pelosi was praised by Casey. “I want soon-to-be-speaker Pelosi and all of the candidates here who happen to be women,” said Casey, “to know that you are a great inspiration to my daughters, and I’m grateful for that.” Nearby, Salon heard someone observe that perhaps Casey’s four daughters would also be grateful to women like Pelosi for supporting their right to choose, something their father does not do.

Feelings about Casey are fraught in Pennsylvania. Ambivalence — even as he stood arm in arm with liberals like Pelosi — was palpable in the crowd, as people demanded Santorum’s head while also grumbling audibly about Casey’s social conservative tendencies.

The son of one of Pennsylvania’s most popular former governors, Bob Casey Sr., Casey Jr. shares his father’s staunch Catholicism and his position on abortion; Casey has said he favors overturning Roe v. Wade. He opposes gun control, embryonic stem cell research, and making gay marriage legal, though he does support adoption rights for same-sex partners. He is also the Democratic Party’s best shot at defeating the far more conservative Santorum, surely one of the most loathed figures in the Senate. While Casey discussed taking the country in the right direction, an older woman sporting a “Dump Rick” button turned to Salon and said, “What about stem cells? And gay marriage? And choice?” Further down the row, a young man stood and shouted “Cas-eeey!” only to sit down and mutter, “I can’t wait to vote you out of office in six years.”

But all of these speeches were just padding, before and after the main event: Obama. Introduced by Murphy, the freshman senator confidently bounded onstage, top buttons of his white shirt open, bopping in time to the music and snapping his fingers as he approached the podium and the thrilled crowd went through the roof. He looked years younger than he does on television, and thinner, his hair darker than when Tim Russert is making him stutter on “Meet the Press.” He’s one of those men whose physical appearance gets magically buffed when hit by a spotlight and the screams of an excited mass of people. He hadn’t yet opened his mouth, but the senator, surveying a theater full of fans who were there to adore him, might as well have been Springsteen.

The crowd stood and yelled their love and Obama began to speak, and they didn’t even mind the lame attempts at local color in his preamble, like, “I love the Philadelphia Eagles!” Soon Obama had warmed up, and begun to riff on his catchphrase, “the Audacity of Hope.” “The thing that requires grace, boldness, audacity, is to hope,” he began, taking the audience through an American history lesson that started with “13 ragtag colonies” and encompassed the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage. “Through effort and sacrifice we make a more perfect union.”

This, Obama continued, “is the American spirit: This country isn’t everything we want but we can change it, if not for ourselves then for our children and our grandchildren.” Obama name-checked FDR, recalling how “despite being in a wheelchair, he stood up, looked out and saw a third of the nation ill-clothed, ill-housed, and ill-fed and said, ‘Why not start Social Security and lift senior citizens out of poverty?’”

Obama looked relaxed, grinning at the sea of beaming faces that were shouting his name. He was going over well, but his delivery felt laid-back. As if he didn’t need to voice anger or frustration when he could rely on so much charisma. As if he had whipped a crowd into a frenzy a thousand times before and could do it while barely lifting a pinky finger. Maybe it was an awareness that today wasn’t, shouldn’t be, about him, a man who has just published a new book, and may or may not be running for president. Or maybe it was because he simply, calmly believes the same thing his acolytes apparently do: that he is a guy who is on the verge of writing the next chapter of American history. “Why can’t we match the might of our military and the devotion of our troops to the strength of our diplomacy?” he shouted to thunderous applause. “Why can’t we act smart as well as tough? Because we are tired of sounding dumb and acting tough!”

To those who remain cynical, the senator urged, “Think about the fact that it’s been harder before. Our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents required far more audacity to do what they did.” Recalling 1965′s Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., Obama quoted the phrase that Dr. Martin Luther King used to spur on the discouraged, “He said ‘I know it’s hard sometimes, but just remember this. The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.’” To the crowd in suburban Philadelphia, Obama reiterated, “It bends toward justice. But it doesn’t bend on its own. It bends because ordinary folks like you and me put our hands on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice.”

And then Obama took off to sprinkle more stardust in states where that arc is still terrifyingly taut, waiting for the hands that in two days will determine which way it bends.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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