DETROIT -- Sen. Barack Obama is indeed a quick study. After looking surprisingly unpolished in a nationally televised forum targeting black audiences nearly two weeks ago, Obama held his own against his closest rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, at the 98th NAACP National Convention at Cobo Hall in Detroit on Thursday morning.
Obama, who is pitting change against experience in the 2008 Democratic primary, got off more than a few crisp one-liners while crafting a message that at times elicited thunderous applause that drowned out some of his words, but obviously bolstered his confidence in the debate arena.
"If you are poor in this country, it is hazardous to your health. If you are black and poor, that's downright deadly," Obama said in response to a question about health care posed by a delegate and given to the candidates in advance of the forum.
"We will not close the gap until we create a system of universal health care. The way to do that is to ignore the insurance companies and drug companies. In negotiations, it's OK for them to have a seat at the table, but they can't buy every single chair."
It was the kind of retort that Obama, who tends to be long-winded when addressing policy questions even when the cameras are rolling, has had a difficult time firing off in past debates. On Thursday, Obama seemed to have found his stride.
The crowd erupted into shouts more common at a tent revival than a forum when Obama pointed out that though convicted, Scooter Libby didn't have to spend one day in prison, while poor people who are found guilty go to prison for years.
"We have to recognize the twin scourges of race and poverty in this country," Obama said during his three-minute remarks.
"We don't expect government to guarantee success in life, but when millions of children start out in the race of life so far behind only because of race, only because of class, that's not just an African-American problem. That's an American problem," Obama said.
Clinton, who drew the luck of the draw and was first to speak -- and, conversely, had the final word -- sparkled in a bright yellow suit and entered the stage to enthusiastic applause. But the crowd roared when Obama, No. 6 in line, appeared on stage.
Clinton didn't fail to remind the audience that she has been to several NAACP conventions, and she dropped the names of prominent African-Americans like Marian Wright Edelman, with whom she has worked on civil rights issues. And other candidates, particularly Rep. Michael Gravel -- who took more than one jab at the other candidates -- and Rep. Dennis Kucinich drew their share of applause for their "Perot-like" let's-just-throw-the-bums-out approach to politics.
But it was clearly Obama's moment.
Obama used the forum to highlight the 34 violent deaths of African-American young people in the Chicago area this past school year. At 11 a.m. on Sunday, Obama will call the community to action against the violence during an appearance at the Vernon Park Church of God at 90th and Stony Island.
An in-your-face Obama
"The massacre that happened at Virginia Tech was a terrible tragedy, and we were grief-stricken and shocked," Obama said. "But in this year alone in Chicago, we have had 34 Chicago Public School students gunned down, and for the most part there has been silence. We have to make sure that we change our politics so that we care just as much about those 34 kids in Chicago as we do about those kids at Virginia Tech."
Accused by critics of being too "skittish" to address black issues head on, Obama's spirited responses seemed crafted to put those critics to rest.
Despite raising a record-breaking amount of money, $32 million, for a reporting period during a primary, Obama still trails Clinton by nearly 20 points in a head-to-head race, according to a Newsweek poll released July 7. Any disconnect -- real or perceived -- between Obama and African-American voters could cause him a problem, as Clinton is working passionately to capture the same vote.
Gina Clayton, 24, a delegate from California who is on her way to Harvard Law School, illustrated the challenge.
"I have a lot of friends that are politically active who are definitely waiting to hear what is coming out of the candidates' mouths that relate to them. They are looking for solutions. We want to know what are they going to do about these problems because we have been here before," she said.
"Candidates have got to answer our questions specifically and directly," Clayton said. "We don't want to play that political game. And right now, so many of my friends have not decided between Hillary and Barack."
On Thursday, Obama was in-your-face. Hopefully, naysayers got the message.