Sen. Barack Obama’s ability to move a crowd with his oratory has helped him win over thousands of new voters and prominent endorsers alike, and will be tested as he tries to build momentum for the coast-to-coast showdown on Super Tuesday.
His speeches — from his Iowa victory over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to his scrambling to make up the difference after she won two states — have brought some voters to tears. Many voters are saying they moved into the Obama camp during his unity-themed victory speech following his rout of Mrs. Clinton in South Carolina.
The Illinois Democrat’s oration — first on display when Mr. Obama was introduced to the nation at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 — is a quality even attractive to political celebrities.
“Every time I’ve been asked over the past year who I would support in the Democratic primary, my answer has always been the same: I’ll support the candidate who inspires me, who inspires all of us, who can lift our vision and summon our hopes and renew our belief that our country’s best days are still to come,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who yesterday gave Mr. Obama his hefty endorsement.
The Massachusetts Democrat compared the younger senator to both of his brothers, saying Mr. Obama shares his family’s ability to inspire a generation.
Mr. Kennedy and his relatives speaking at yesterday’s event used a version of the word “inspire” at least 19 times, rallying more than 4,000 packed into an arena at American University, with some who braved frigid temperatures for several hours getting turned away early because the arena was at capacity.
“I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans,” Caroline Kennedy said.
But Mr. Obama’s rivals for the presidential nod sometimes ridicule his fiery speeches and say he offers little more than stellar oratory.
Mrs. Clinton told voters in New Hampshire they must “nominate and elect a doer not a talker.” She likened his opposition to the Iraq war as little more than a speech, while acknowledging it was “a very good speech.”
In 2004, after Mr. Obama delivered the convention speech as a then little-known Democrat running for senate, Mrs. Clinton sounded inspired herself.
“I thought that was one of the most electrifying moments that I can remember at any convention,” Mrs. Clinton said then, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Mr. Kennedy received some of his most thunderous applause yesterday when lauding the Obama convention speech.
“Like most of the nation, I was moved four years ago as he told us a profound truth, that we were not, we must not be, just red states and blue states, but we must be United States,” he said. “Since that time, I have marveled at his grit and his grace as he traveled this country and inspired record turnouts of people of all ages, of all races, of all genders, of all parties and of all faiths to get fired up and ready to go.”
Mr. Kennedy said Mr. Obama “has lit a spark of hope” and compared today to “another such time, in the 1960s.”
“We had a new president who inspired the nation, especially the young, to seek a new frontier,” he said. “They realized that when they asked what they could do for their country, they could change the world.”
He reminded voters that his brother John F. Kennedy rejected President Truman’s request that he “be patient” and wait until he was more experienced, saying his brother was able to tap into a feeling of “urgency.”
“I sense the same kind of yearning today, the same kind of hunger to move on and move America forward,” he said. “With every person he meets, every crowd he inspires, and everyone he touches, he generates new hope that our greatest days as a nation are still ahead, and this generation of Americans, like others before us, can unite to meet our own rendezvous with destiny.”
In remarks filled with suggestion that Mrs. Clinton represents the opposite, he said Mr. Obama is running a campaign of “change” and rejects divisive politics.
He said the nation must “rise above the old politics that parses us into separate groups and puts us at odds with one another” and deplored “the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion.”
Mr. Kennedy also told the voters to “let no one” deny the truth that Mr. Obama opposed the war in Iraq, “when so many others were silent or simply went along,” a reference to former President Bill Clinton, who suggested Mr. Obama’s Iraq record is a “fairy tale.”
Obama supporters and some undecided voters said yesterday the Kennedy endorsement — and one from Nobel-Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, who once labeled Mr. Clinton as the “first black president” — will help him build on the momentum from the South Carolina win at a crucial time.
“I’m very excited about his energy and what he’s bringing to this very important campaign,” said Donald Holmes, 36, of the Tenleytown neighborhood in Washington. “He’s going to need his speaking skills especially as he battles the Clintons.”
But Clinton supporter Kate Gleason, an American University student who wanted to hear Mr. Obama speak, said she made her presidential pick based on more than what she deemed “fluffy” speeches.
“He’s very inspiring and his energy is fabulous, but I think he should have waited,” she said. “He catches everybody’s heartstrings, but intellectually I don’t see where he’s going.”