Generating enthusiasm for change isn't enough. To beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama will have to make a move.--"I say O, you say Bama," the woman yells.
So went the warm up act last week, when I saw Barack Obama speak in San Francisco to an adoring crowd of thousands. It was my first US Presidential rally, and a fascinating look at the fervour of American politics. The crowd yelled back their "Bama!" with unbridled vigour. And this was at lunchtime on a week day.
Americans retain a desire to believe in their leaders that apathy and cynicism has gnawed away in most other western democracies. Outsiders like me will always feel a little uncomfortable with the cult of personality this tends to generate, a willingness to transpose heroism onto their leaders - which goes all the way back to George Washington. On the other hand, such faith in democracy and in those who seek to serve as leaders is refreshing, especially given the deception of the current Presidency. If, as Billy Bragg has sung "cynicism's such a cop out", this crowd was all-in.
The poker metaphor stems from the fact that I watched this rally in the company of a professional poker player. And because at the end of the event, I knew that Obama is starting to raise the stakes on the Democratic side of the presidential campaign.
It's a received truth in this campaign - one which I think stands up to inspection - that 2008, more than usual, will be a change election. It's been some years since so many people have been so fed up with a sitting president for so long. And there's next to no chance that President Bush will change course on any of his major policies in the next year.
As a result, two of the three major Democratic candidates - Obama and John Edwards - are running as Washington outsiders against the ultimate Washington insider, Hilary Clinton. They want the Democratic primaries to be referendums on the failings of Washington as a whole, and Americans' desire for a less corrupt style of government.
From the time Obama committed to run, his literature was full of change language. In one early letter asking for financial support were the underlined words, "The American people are hungry for a different kind of politics, and our campaign is about answering that call."
In the last month or two commentators have been stressing that this could be Clinton's Achilles' heel. Edwards and Obama were strongly anti-war, pro-universal health, and boldly promising change-heavy agendas. In comparison, after 20 years of leadership by the two same families, what could be less about change than another Clinton in the White House? Two words repeated - Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton - could yet pierce Hilary's increasingly comfortable lead in the polls.
The argument sounded compelling, but it was never that simple.
Obama is an intriguing candidate, with a whiff of real integrity. As the professional gambler beside me at the speech said, "you get the sense he just might be one of those 'two in a century' Presidents". He was sufficiently impressed to offer me odds on an Obama victory.
Undoubtedly, the Illinois senator does promise distinct change from President Bush. Whereas Bush is defined by his assurance, summed up in the title of the new book Dead Certain, Obama revels in a glorious uncertainty. He stresses the fact he doesn't know everything, that he will listen and learn from other viewpoints. He has written that "we must talk and reach for common understandings, precisely because all of us are imperfect and can never act with certainty."
Obama is what you might call an unconviction politician, the antithesis of Bush's moral certainty.
Yet Clinton hasn't become the ultimate insider without learning a thing or two. This month she has, well, changed her message to one of change. In her new stump speech she promises: "I will bring my experience to the White House and begin to change our country". Her new ad in Iowa and New Hampshire ends "If we're ready for change, she's ready to lead".
You'd think an anti-establishment message would be a hard sell for a Clinton. But the opinion polls suggest Democrats are buying. I suspect the reason, something the beltway commentators who have pitched Obama versus Clinton as "Change versus Experience" have failed to realize, is that for many voters change doesn't have to mean anything as grand as overhauling Washington or healing a divided nation. That may even seem too idealistic. As one Democratic supporter said to me after the Obama rally: "I'm not sure if I dare believe".
The simple, believable change that Clinton offers is a return to competence: change merely as an end to Bush's bumblings. That could be change enough for most voters.
Where does that leave Obama? Judging by the San Francisco speech, he's willing to see Clinton's change and raise her one. He says "it's going to take more than a change of parties in the White House to turn this country round", because the type of politics that needs to be defeated "was there before Bush and Cheney". There's no question who he's referring to.
And there's no question he's upping the ante.
"We are not here just to win an election. We are here to transform a nation," he says.
The crowd at the rally goes wild, but there's an air of desperation in those words. He's gambling on the hope that Americans want not just change but upheaval. And that may be asking too much of this weary country.
However, as end of the year approaches with Clinton retaining a comfortable lead in the polls and a third-place finish in both Iowa and North Carolina a real prospect, Obama is going to have to make a move. His current campaigning, rousing as it is, will not propel him past Clinton on its own.
If he's got an ace up his sleeve, he's going to have to play it soon.