Celebrities don't hold campaign rallies

Barack Obama's big night was a campaign event, and the people there weren't just fans.

Published August 29, 2008 3:08AM (EDT)

DENVER -- John McCain's campaign was trying to sell the press on the idea that the final night of the Democratic convention was basically one nonstop rock concert, but it's wrong: Half the crowd had a suit on, people sat patiently through hours of political speeches in the blazing sun without any sign they were bored waiting for the headliner, and besides, the wave didn't really get started until after Al Gore left the stage. (Yes, that's a joke.)

Despite what Republicans wanted people to believe, Barack Obama's acceptance speech tonight had more or less the same vibe as the first few nights of the convention, just on a bigger scale. Organizers picked up the whole operation from the Pepsi Center and moved it about a mile down the road to Mile High Stadium at Invesco Field. Security perimeters vanished overnight, rebuilt around the football field. Even the carefully organized props the convention officials passed out earlier in the week made the trek -- they distributed American flags of varying sizes for people to wave (or put on their lapel). And then before Obama's speech, officials got blue "Change" signs to everyone in the stadium -- all 85,000 or so. Yeah, fine, Stevie Wonder sang, and people got up and danced (but only to his hit "Signed, Sealed and Delivered" -- they stayed seated for the song with "Barack Obama" in the chorus, even with its go-go backbeat). But people danced to Melissa Etheridge, too, back at the basketball arena.

This was not some crowd gathered to see what kind of train wreck Britney Spears has turned into, or gawking at someone they know only from MTV; it was a political rally, the same as anything McCain might speak at (only with far, far more people there). What the speech helped show was the cheap shot behind the "celebrity" charges the GOP has been hurling, with some effectiveness, at Obama all summer. McCain isn't exactly some unknown policy wonk toiling away in the Russell Senate Office Building, unrecognized by the tourists passing by -- eight years ago, he was the Republican Obama, the insurgent reformer with the exciting brand, and if Obama is a celebrity, McCain is, too.

The Denver fire marshal locked the building down, as the crowd strained its 84,000-person capacity. And most of the people here were voters, many from Colorado, a battleground state. The campaign encouraged them to send text messages all night -- building up its database for the fall -- and collected information from them on their way in. And it had them work phone banks in the hallways all afternoon. Obama's speech, actually, was more than a political rally -- it was also the largest field office in the history of campaigns. Just a day after Obama filled a football mega-stadium, McCain will hold a rally in Dayton, Ohio, to announce his vice-presidential pick. His campaign can barely give tickets away. Maybe the lasting message Democrats should take from the speech Thursday night was this: When Obama gathered 84,000 people to hear him in Denver, they weren't fans. They were supporters. And if things break Obama's way, McCain may soon find that the reason his crowds aren't as big is because he doesn't have as many of them.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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