- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Down-ticket Democratic candidates usually limited to stumping for votes along parade routes and shaking hands with 40 people at pancake breakfasts will get a nice boost this year, thanks to the man at the top of the ticket.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama can easily draw 3,000 people for a midday town hall rally - and upwards of 20,000 for evening rallies - and that means city council, congressional and Senate candidates from across the country will have the good fortune over the next four months to be his warm-up acts.

Democrats argue the sheer crowd size will help hopefuls in November, and some are excited they will be treated to captive audiences in the thousands.

“When he comes to Tennessee, we’ll have every significant Democrat running at the event, unless they don’t want to be there, and they are crazy if they don’t want to be there,” said Bob Tuke, a candidate for U.S. Senate and former Tennessee Democratic Party chairman.

Mr. Tuke, running against Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, said his typical campaign events can draw a few hundred people. “And there’s no question if Barack Obama comes, you move an expectation of a crowd from several hundred to in the thousands,” he said.

He said when Mr. Obama campaigned for then-Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. in 2006 in the latter’s Senate bid, he drew 3,000 to the Nashville Courthouse.

“He brings an aura and an excitement to any event that we haven’t seen in a long time,” Mr. Tuke said.

Michigan state Rep. Brenda Clack appeared on stage with the Democratic hopeful at his town hall Monday in Flint, Mich., and believes she will get an Obama bump at the polls in November when she runs for the county commissioner seat.

“He has that lightning-rod effect,” she said. “I’m sure it’s going to draw the numbers out because people are going to vote for him [and] I do expect my numbers to go up. He’s an automatic draw, and there’s no telling how many new people will vote this year.”

Ms. Clack said people had to be turned away from his forum, which attracted “way over 2,000,” and she’s sure he’ll need to appear in a larger venue during his next Michigan trip.

Early Obama supporters often cited his potential effect on the fall ticket when explaining their endorsement of the Illinois senator over one-time front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Even Democratic members of Congress who remained neutral in the Democratic fight said they saw internal polls that proved Mr. Obama would help the party retain and strengthen its congressional majority.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, earlier this month opined on the “Obama effect” on congressional races, saying Democrats will be happy to “exploit the opportunities he has opened up for us.”

“We’re in the attraction business,” she said. “Sometimes you might never know it, but that is what we are in. And he has proven to be an attraction in politics, and we see it as very positive.”

But Virginia’s Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, supporting his party’s presumptive presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, is doubtful big crowds will translate to an Obama win in the fall.

“All this emotion at his rallies may have served him well in a Democratic primary, but this election is not going to be decided by Democrats or Republicans. It’s going to be independent swing voters, and I don’t think those folks are going to be swayed by a big smile and a flowery speech,” Mr. Bolling said.

Mr. Bolling, who initially supported McCain rival Mitt Romney, said he was worried at first when the Arizona senator clinched the Republican nod.

“I had some concerns about that - how enthusiastically the conservative grass roots of the party would rally behind Senator McCain’s campaign, but I’m seeing that come together very nicely in Virginia as the party as a whole is coming together strongly and enthusiastically behind him,” Mr. Bolling said.

But some Republicans privately express worry about the Obama enthusiasm, especially after seeing the Democrat attracted 75,000 for an outdoor concert rally in Portland, Ore., last month.

Mr. McCain didn’t help matters on June 3, when his lackluster event in Louisiana was contrasted with Mr. Obama’s 32,000-strong St. Paul, Minn., rally.

“McCain’s speech was creaky, ungracious, and unnecessary,” conservative blogger Amy Holmes wrote at National Review. “Watching McCain, I couldn’t help but think of the astonishing contrast Barack’s triumphant speech to a massive and adoring crowd will be. It was not a comparison McCain should have invited.”

Republican strategist Alex Castellanos admitted that night on CNN, “It could have been a little more vibrant, let’s face the facts.”

The large Obama rallies offer a sharp contrast. Attendees are treated to an upbeat soundtrack, cheer loudly and do the wave while waiting for the candidate. They often are asked to arrive hours early owing to security screening and if they want to get a good seat.

The campaign aides are sticklers for starting on time, and lately local Democrats have taken the stage to speak about the party’s vision both locally and for the country. It’s an early preview of what’s to come, as undoubtedly down-ticket candidates will take turns introducing Mr. Obama.

Team Obama often took advantage of pre-event crowds by registering voters, explaining the caucus process and showcasing local musical acts.

In December before big rallies with Oprah Winfrey in Iowa, campaign volunteers staged a mock caucus to teach new voters how to take part.

Before the South Carolina Oprah rally, attendees were handed pre-printed voter cards when entering the football stadium and a volunteer asked them to pull out their cell phones and call each person on the card and urge them to vote.

He benefited in the primaries and caucuses from the increased voter turnout, and Democrats said they expect that trend to continue, especially among those ages 35 and younger.

Vigorous participation arguably will help state and local candidates sharing the ticket with Mr. Obama. It’s free advertising and name recognition on a massive scale that they aren’t likely to get otherwise.

The Obama crowds are “astonishing,” Mr. Tuke said, comparing that to Mr. McCain’s recent visit to Tennessee.

“He was here a week ago Monday, and it was pitiful. John McCain just doesn’t generate the same kind of support,” he said.

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