Los Angeles--Forty-eight hours before the closest thing America has ever had to a national primary, four extraordinary women put on the best campaign rally I’ve seen in 20 years of covering presidential politics.
The pitch-perfect event in U.C.L.A.’s basketball arena started like every other Barack Obama event — chants of “yes we can” and signs pitching the power of hope. Mr. Obama campaigned on the East Coast Sunday, but by the time this rally ended, Michelle Obama, Caroline Kennedy, Oprah Winfrey and Maria Shriver had crystallized the challenge Senator Hillary Clinton will face if she wins the Democratic nomination. She will have to figure out how to preserve the energy and excitement that Mr. Obama has stirred in his supporters, especially in once-alienated young voters.
The most recent poll here suggests that Mr. Obama has cut deeply into a double-digit lead for Mrs. Clinton in the biggest delegate prize of Tuesday’s primaries. Certainly, in that moment at the rally, the Obama campaign seemed to have a monopoly on what is hip, young and glamorous in California.
Before the event got into full swing, giant screens showed a video by will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. A visually diverse lineup of stars — the actresses Scarlett Johansson and Amber Valletta; the rapper Common; the singer John Legend; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — recited and sang along with a film of Mr. Obama’s speech the night he lost the New Hampshire primary.
The crowd was screaming with delight when it saw Ms. Kennedy, who brought her uncle Senator Edward Kennedy and now, remarkably, her cousin Ms. Shriver, wife of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, into the Obama campaign.
Ms. Kennedy previewed Ms. Shriver’s surprising appearance by urging Democrats to “step out of your lives and into this moment in history.”
Ms. Winfrey — finally — spoke to the most emotionally fraught aspect of this contest. “Now look at this campaign: the two front-runners are a black man and a woman,” she said. “What that says to me is we have won the struggle and we have the right to compete.”
Instead of seeing a painful choice, voters, Ms. Winfrey urged, should see a moment when they “are free from the constraints of gender and race.”
After watching the candidates struggle with the issue, painfully and awkwardly, in the past month, it was a relief to hear someone finally frame it in a way that celebrated what the Democratic Party has achieved — and then move beyond it.
Ms. Kennedy and Ms. Winfrey have more star power than pretty much anyone in this country. But it was Mrs. Obama who presented the challenge to Mrs. Clinton. Speaking without a script, wandering the stage and pumping her arms, she was intellectually powerful, even fierce at times, in making her political arguments and did not hesitate to jab at the Clintons’ legacy. “In my lifetime,” she said, “through Republican and Democratic administrations, it hasn’t got better for ordinary folks.”
But she also allowed herself to offer the full-throated praise of her husband that she avoided in earlier stages of the campaign. She spoke about his character, about his ability to lead, and aimed squarely at the criticism that his résumé is too thin.
Mrs. Obama spoke about her husband’s time in the Illinois State Legislature as if it were more important than serving in Congress or as a governor because it made him understand the impact that federal laws have on ordinary Americans. The effect was to put added flesh on Mr. Obama’s broader message of change and hope.
“We are still a nation that is too guided by fear,” she said, adding: “We are raising a generation of young people who are doubtful, who are insular.”
Ultimately, presidential campaigns are — or at least should be — about the candidates, not their spouses or surrogates. Bill Clinton, who packs his own star power, has been a big draw as well as a big drag on his wife’s campaign.
The Times editorial board has endorsed Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy, and we are enthusiastic about her ability to be a great president. But candidates have to win in order to serve. Attending the rally here, we hoped Mrs. Clinton and her team were also watching and listening, very attentively.