- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2008

CHICAGO — The “Obama Revolution” has transformed presidential politics and injected into campaigning a level of popular enthusiasm not seen in decades.

But can the man who sparked the revolution translate the support of tens of thousands who will gather to hear him accept the Democratic presidential nomination on Thursday into tens of millions of votes that will deliver the White House to his party in November?

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois commanded the nation’s attention four years ago when the upstart politician, then a 43-year-old state senator, delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.

“Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely,” he told the delegates in Boston, many of whom were surprised by the newcomer’s passion and potential.

He could just as easily utter those same words in Denver as he formally accepts the party’s nomination in the 75,000-seat Invesco Field, where the Denver Broncos play and he starts the three-month-sprint to become the nation’s first black president.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama has marveled aloud to voters at his “unlikely” journey, which culminates as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton steps aside on Tuesday and he becomes the party’s official standard-bearer.

Now, as his convention marks the arrival of a new generation of Democrats, questions remain about whether the revolution can deliver a victory.

The Democrat won over many voters over the past year using his oratorical skills. Hip-hop star Will.i.am even won a Grammy with a song crafted from Mr. Obama’s New Hampshire concession speech, a song that was viewed more than 25 million times on the Internet.

The 2004 keynote speech was the one that introduced Mr. Obama to the nation, but he has long recognized his ability to move a crowd.

Budding orator

Mr. Obama first tested his speaking skills as a sophomore at Occidental College in Southern California, joining friends who were organizing a student campaign urging the university to divest from the apartheid regime in South Africa.

He realized his words could mean more than ordinary speeches.

“‘If I could just find the right words,’ I had thought to myself. With the right words, everything could change - South Africa, the lives of ghetto kids just a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Dreams From My Father.”

The setup for the speech was that he would make some opening remarks and a few white students would come onstage “to drag me away” in “a bit of street theater, a way to dramatize the situation for activists in South Africa,” he wrote.

A few hundred gathered, but few noticed his opening line: “There’s a struggle going on.”

He wrote: “My voice barely carried beyond the first few rows. I waited for the crowd to quiet. ‘I say, there’s a struggle going on!’ The Frisbee players stopped.”

The young Mr. Obama, who had recently dropped the nickname “Barry” to return to his given Kenyan name, Barack, told the crowd the struggle “demands we choose sides.”

“Not between black and white. Not between rich and poor. No - it’s a harder choice than that,” he said. “It’s a choice between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and injustice. Between commitment and indifference. A choice between right and wrong.”

“The crowd was quiet now, watching me,” he wrote, adding that someone shouted, “‘Tell it like it is.’”

An orator was born: “Then the others started in, clapping, cheering, and I knew that I had them, that the connection had been made.”

When the white students pulled him from the microphone as planned, he struggled out of their grip for real.

“I really wanted to stay up there, to hear my voice bouncing off the crowd and returning back to me in applause,” he wrote. “I had so much left to say.”

The message of coming together and the energy boost he got from the crowd that day are familiar elements in his campaign today. Mr. Obama feeds off his crowds, and he performs better when large numbers of people are responding to him.

Republicans, who in Sen. John McCain of Arizona have a candidate widely seen as lacking Mr. Obama’s public-speaking flair, are likely to use the raucous reception Mr. Obama is expected to get at the convention to dub him again as just a “celebrity” with screaming fans, as they did this summer when he addressed more than 200,000 in Berlin as a “proud citizen of the world.”

However, few Democrats are worried their candidate’s superior speaking ability will hurt him come November.

“Having lots of people like you and want to be part of your campaign is never a problem,” said Simon Rosenberg of the liberal think tank NDN. “It’s just not a problem.”

Just words?

Mr. Obama wrote in “Dreams” that after the Occidental speech, he questioned its value and told a friend, “I don’t believe we made any difference by what we did today. I don’t believe that what happens to a kid in [South Africa] makes much difference to the people we were talking to.”

He added, “Pretty words don’t make it so. So why do I pretend otherwise? … Because it makes me feel important. Because I like the applause. It gives me a nice, cheap thrill.”

As he often pointed out to Mrs. Clinton during their tough primary fight, a centerpiece of his candidacy was his early opposition to the Iraq war. He laid out his position during an antiwar rally in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago as a state senator in 2002.

“I don’t oppose war in all circumstances. What I do oppose is a dumb war,” he said as Mrs. Clinton and the majority of his future Senate colleagues were voting to authorize the Iraq invasion.

The Obama campaign hosted rallies across the nation marking the anniversary of his antiwar speech, and the “dumb war” line is available on the Mobile Obama site for download as a cell-phone ring tone.

Attempting to turn the tables, Mrs. Clinton at one point suggested the antiwar speech was the entire basis of her rival’s candidacy.

“Senator McCain will bring a lifetime of experience to the campaign. I will bring a lifetime of experience. And Senator Obama will bring a speech that he gave in 2002,” she said in March.

She also mocked his oratory, likening his message of unity to “celestial choirs” and suggesting that his speeches were equivalent to promising that waving a “magic wand” would make the world “perfect.”

She often pointed out that “words are cheap,” telling voters she was about “solutions, not speeches.”

“I’m not here just to give you a speech, I’m here to talk about what we’re going to do together to solve our problems,” she told voters in February.

Her complaint struck a chord with some, and Republican strategists have been quick to adopt a similar line of attack.

From ‘04 to ‘08

Longtime Democratic National Committee member Harold Ickes remembers first seeing Mr. Obama on the stage in Boston in July 2004.

“It was a head-turner of a speech, and it put him on the national political map, and here he is about to be the nominee four years later,” said Mr. Ickes, a senior adviser for Mrs. Clinton during the primary.

“He is a very, very good orator,” Mr. Ickes said, praising Mr. Obama’s decision to move the speech from the convention hall to the outdoor stadium site. “It certainly has caught everybody’s attention. It’s a little risky, but it’s clear he can pull it off.”

Mr. Obama used the Boston speech to outline his biography, his mixed-race heritage, his love for America and many of the “unity” themes he still uses today.

The most memorable line blasted the idea of “red” and “blue” states: “We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

He praised the party’s presidential ticket of Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, saying they represented the rejection of a “politics of cynicism” and an embrace of the “politics of hope.”

He tied his own story to the party nominees, saying people should not underestimate hope as a motivating force for change.

He said he believed in something “more substantial” than just “blind optimism,” saying it is “the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”

Mr. Obama, who went on to win his Senate race that fall, said if America shared his sense of urgency, he had “no doubt” that “the people will rise up in November, and John Kerry will be sworn in as president. … And this country will reclaim its promise. And out of this long political darkness, a brighter day will come.”

Voters in swing states from New Mexico to Virginia hear those same messages today, along with his embrace of Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now.”

Mr. Obama also tells voters they should ignore people who suggest their enthusiasm is hype, and he wrote in a fundraising e-mail recently that Republican attack ads are “mocking the desire of millions of Americans to step up and take ownership of the political process.”

He used a similar rebuttal against Mrs. Clinton in February.

“Don’t let cynics convince you that somehow [because] you’re excited about a candidate or excited about a campaign, there’s something wrong with that,” Mr. Obama said in Green Bay.

After the 2004 convention speech - which was not widely carried on network television - some analysts dared to suggest they may have heard the first black president of the United States.

“It’s a shame that the networks aren’t covering tonight because they just missed a bit of history right here,” conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks said in a PBS interview that night.

“A star was being born,” liberal commentator Mark Shields agreed. “It was brilliant.”

A movement for change

Regardless of how the speech is received Thursday, the 45th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the campaign plans to put the thousands who hear it in Denver to work.

As they did with a major event in South Carolina last winter, Team Obama will distribute voter phone numbers and urge attendees to make calls checking to see that potential supporters are registered to vote.

The campaign also required voters to volunteer for the campaign to obtain tickets to the nomination speech.

The grass-roots nature of the Obama efforts aided his success first in the Iowa caucuses in January and then across the country as he mobilized supporters to lobby their neighbors, register new Democrats and attend caucus sessions on his behalf.

Earlier this month, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe challenged Florida volunteers to make 50,000 phone calls in 48 hours. They made 125,000.

Mr. Rosenberg of NDN, involved in campaigns since 1988 and a veteran of Bill Clinton’s War Room, said he thinks Mr. Obama has inspired “the birth of a new politics.”

“This new 21st-century model allows many more Americans to participate in a meaningful way in the future of their country,” he said. “It’s a better model than we used in the 20th century, and it’s better than what John McCain uses.”

Mr. Obama’s “newness” - he even inspired a blog titled Barack Obama is your new bicycle - has helped him attract hundreds of thousands of first-time voters.

Many college students, black voters and even disengaged Republicans have flooded his events and rallies, and some listen to his words with tears streaming down their faces.

But if the election were only about crowd size and enthusiasm, he would have won the primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he attracted record numbers of cheering fans but still lost to Mrs. Clinton.

Top aides say the Nov. 4 campaign can be won with hard work and the bottom-up mentality Mr. Obama espouses on the trail.

Obama deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand said recently that his boss looked at the presidential race as having a broader focus when he was considering whether to run.

“Barack’s point was winning the presidency would be remarkable, but building a movement to change this country at the grass roots and actually getting an agenda passed would be worth anything and everything that they would have to go through to get there,” Mr. Hildebrand told progressive activists and bloggers at a conference of Internet political activists last month.

“Let’s change Washington, let’s let the American people be back in charge of their future. Those are lofty words, but they are also very fundamental organizing principles that he learned as a community organizer,” Mr. Hildebrand said.

Mr. Hildebrand said one reason he joined the campaign is that he thinks “hope can get things done.” He added that the campaign’s organizing muscle could help move state legislatures to the Democratic column and “build a party” in the same manner that Ronald Reagan was able to build an enduring Republican movement.

“It wasn’t just about Barack Obama, and it never should be. This should be about whether or not we can build a progressive movement in this country that has a life of its own and that has a future. It’s not just about the 2008 election; it’s about what are we doing for the next decade,” he said.

Mr. Hildebrand said that after the convention, the campaign aims to register “millions and millions of new Democrats” in a “massive” drive on Labor Day weekend. He said Democrats have a real chance to change Washington.

“If we don’t use that opportunity, if we don’t do this right, shame on us,” he said. “We’re never going to have it as good as we have it right now.”

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