A buoyant Michelle Obama, fresh from husband Barack Obama’s 17 percentage point victory in Tuesday’s Wisconsin presidential primary, wooed Rhode Island voters yesterday at a confab on women’s issues in Providence and at a boisterous, applause-punctuated rally for her husband’s campaign at the Community College of Rhode Island’s Warwick campus.
Barack Obama has run the table since the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday contests, winning 10 consecutive Democratic primaries and caucuses over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton this month.
he wife of the Illinois senator visited Rhode Island yesterday to try to parlay his national surge into Rhode Island support in the run-up to the state’s March 4 presidential primary.
“We’ve learned a lot this year,” Obama told a CCRI gathering estimated at 2,200. “We’ve learned that people are hungry for change. … Hope is making a comeback. I like it.”
A Clinton victory here was once a foregone conclusion; the senator and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, were popular in the state during Mr. Clinton’s White House years in the 1990s. Both Clintons have campaigned and helped raise money for prominent state politicians, such as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rep. James Langevin and Providence Mayor David Cicilline.
Now, as Obama rolls up the score in state after state, he is running ahead in money, delegates and momentum. Clinton is pushing experience in a year when voters seem to yearn for change. Even Bill Clinton admits his wife must win the Texas and Ohio contests, held on March 4 with Rhode Island and Vermont.
In the afternoon, Obama spoke to about 150 professional and politically active women at a rally for Rhode Island Women for Obama at the Providence Biltmore. She used humor, family stories and a steely lawyer’s brief for her husband’s campaign.
Without mentioning Hillary Clinton’s name, Obama methodically pecked away at Clinton’s lines of attack against her husband. Originally, she said, Democratic establishment figures who sided with Clinton said Barack Obama couldn’t successfully put together a campaign organization and raise enough money to mount a serious campaign for the presidency.
Now, it is Clinton who last month loaned her campaign $5 million of her own money, while Obama has built an Internet political ATM machine based on 600,000 small donors from around the country.
Obama referred to battling against “people who have been running forever” and attacked the argument that her husband did not have sufficient experience to be effective in the White House.
Throughout the contest, Hillary and Bill Clinton have belittled Obama’s government experience. He was a veteran Illinois legislator before running for the U.S. Senate, but has only served in Washington since his 2004 election.
Without mentioning Clinton by name, Obama fired away, skewering the New York’s senator’s 2002 vote in favor of giving President Bush the authority to prosecute the war in Iraq.
“The facts were pretty clear,” said Obama. Despite “a lot of years of Washington experience” Clinton and other inside-the-Beltway players in Congress gave Mr. Bush what he wanted.
To the argument that Barack Obama is not tough enough to deal in the swirling scrum of Washington politics, his wife noted that he came of political age in Chicago, a legendary cauldron for gloves-off elections and governing styles.
She elicited an emotional response from the women with her own life story as well as that of her husband.
Michelle Obama is a graduate of Princeton University and the Harvard Law School, but she grew up the daughter of a stay-at-home mother and a father who had a blue-collar job and suffered from multiple sclerosis.
Her success in life, she says, is due to the traditional values of her upbringing and good public schools. “I wouldn’t be standing here today if it were not for those neighborhood public schools and those wonderful teachers.”
At her evening rally, Obama was introduced by her brother, Brown University basketball coach Craig Robinson. “It isn’t every day that a guy who lives on the East Side of Providence gets to introduce the next first lady of the United States,” he said. “It’s even more humbling when it’s your little sister.”
The crowd at her evening rally, a quilt of the state’s age demographics and ethnic and racial groups, screamed the campaign’s theme line: “Yes we can!” at high points in her speech.
Her speech frequently went back to kitchen-table issues: jobs, health-care costs and education. “There has been a constant decline in the quality of life for regular folks,” she said.
She suggested her husband was more like those folks than other candidates. “Imagine a president of the United States who is three years outside of paying down his student loans,” she said.
She spoke at length about her husband’s early career as a neighborhood organizer in Chicago, and how he chose work as a civil-rights lawyer over far better paying work on Wall Street. “When you’re given the gift of advocacy, you don’t sell it to the highest bidder,” she shouted.
In an interview with The Journal yesterday, she brushed off a flap with Cindy McCain, the wife of presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain. Cindy McCain had criticized Michelle Obama’s characterization of her pride in America. Obama said she had been speaking about the realm of politics, and the pride she felt in the enthusiasm she had seen during the campaign.
In Barack Obama’s remarkable Wisconsin victory, he won nearly as many votes as Clinton and McCain combined and scored a higher percentage of Democratic votes than McCain took among Republican voters.
An imposing woman standing almost 6 feet, Obama used understated humor to court the votes of Rhode Island women. She spoke of campaigning so often in Iowa, site of the nation’s first presidential caucus, that “I know Iowa like I know my kitchen.”
Among the Rhode Island women at the event were Nuala Pell, wife of former U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, Margaret Curran, former U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, Susan Farmer, a Republican who became the first woman elected to statewide office in 1982 when she won election as Rhode Island’s secretary of state, former Democratic state Rep. Melvoid Benson of North Kingstown, Patricia Moran, a Democratic activist fundraiser who is close to Sen. Jack Reed, and novelist Ann Hood.
“I am very impressed,” said Farmer. “I am proud to support Barack Obama, the strongest and best candidate for president of the United States, the right person at this time in our history.”
Moran said Barack Obama has hit “a real nerve” and that Michelle drew an empathetic response from the women gathered yesterday. “I saw tears in the eyes of some women here this afternoon.”
“You don’t see someone like this come along very often,” said Pell, who at 84 has spent a lifetime in politics; her husband was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1960. She said she couldn’t recall seeing a female political figure who gave a stronger speech.
“I don’t think I have seen anyone as impressive as she is,” said Pell.