Friday, February 22, 2008

"On board with Barack Obama — as his campaign scents victory"

London Times:
Our correspondent spent four days on the inside with Barack Obama’s team as the Democratic presidential front-runner took on Texas--The morning after his landslide victories over Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin and Hawaii this week, Barack Obama’s campaign jet touched down at Love Field airport in Dallas, Texas, on time at 11.15am, and pulled to within 10ft of a waiting motorcade.
Inside the plane’s business section, the Illinois senator – sniffing with a heavy head cold – donned his dark suit jacket, checked his BlackBerry for the final time and prepared to descend the front steps. A Secret Service detail of six muscular agents, handguns on their left hips, radio transmitters in chest holsters, earpieces activated, exited on to the warm tarmac before him.

With a door held open, he ducked into a black Chevrolet Suburban, alongside his “bodyman” Reggie Love, 25, the former Duke University football star who is responsible for everything from fielding the candidate’s calls to keeping his bags in order. As they do every day, at 8am the two had spent an hour in a hotel gym – this time the Hyatt Regency in Austin – running and lifting weights.

Four police motorcycle outriders revved their engines, sirens began wailing and, with lights flashing, they began moving swiftly across the tarmac. In front of Mr Obama’s car was a giant white police station wagon; behind it a vehicle containing four Secret Servicemen, sunglasses on, windows open. Dallas police, who 45 years ago escorted a young, white, charismatic Democratic president from Love Field to his death in Dealey Plaza, had this Wednesday morning shut down the entire five-lane Interstate 35 highway for the half-hour journey to the Reunion Arena, a former sports stadium.

As the motorcade cruised at 50mph through traffic lights and past waiting cars, onlookers cheered and took pictures. Children lined up in playgrounds to wave; pedestrians held up “Texas Loves Obama” signs as the man trying to become America’s first black commander-in-chief sped by.

Mr Obama was driven into the bowels of the stadium and ushered into a back room, where he looked over an addition to his stump speech that he was about to deliver: a rebuttal of Mrs Clinton’s claim that morning that he was untested and unready to be president. From the arena above him came a familiar sound: the euphoric roars and screams of his waiting audience, this day a vast, largely African-American crowd of 19,000.

Men and women were dancing and clapping to Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, blaring from giant speakers. Thousands were waving signs: “Dallas 4 Obama”; “Latinos 4 Obama”; “Obama: Hope, Vision, Change”; even “Librarians For Obama”. Women wore T-shirts with pictures of John F Kennedy, Mr Obama and Martin Luther King, emblazoned with “The Dream Comes True”.

Mary Tyszko, a white, 50-year-old health worker, clutched her hands. “He has given me hope. I really believe in him. And I just trust him.” Then Mr Obama took to the stage. The noise was deafening, a long, exultant roar with all the force and overwhelming power of a jet engine before take-off. “Obama! Obama! Obama! Obamaaaaaaaaa!” they chanted. From four giant screens hanging from the ceiling, Mr Obama’s image could be seen from the farthest reaches of the stadium, waving, clapping at this adoring crowd, as they stared up at him with an almost mesmeric fervour. At one point in his speech, delivered in the religious cadence of Dr King, Mr Obama had to blow his nose. “Obama!” they chanted and clapped again, as their idol wiped his face.

This is a daily ritual for Mr Obama. Only 24 hours earlier, he appeared in a Mexican-American enclave of western San Antonio and drew a crowd as big as that which greeted Pope John Paul II when he visited the same area in September 1987. Three, sometimes four times a day, his Secret Service detail surrounding him, he is greeted by massive crowds, never before seen during a presidential primary campaign, filled with young and old, black and white, men and women, steelworkers and fund managers, nurses and accountants. No wonder he believes the White House is now within his reach.

And yet the growing belief that he could become the next president, after ten straight wins over Mrs Clinton since Super Tuesday, the ever-greater crowds, the zealous intensity Mr Obama provokes as he fills arenas with his message of change and empowerment, has begun to fuel a nascent but competing narrative in recent days: that there is something cultish, disturbing, and faintly Messianic about this political movement.

Critics say his rallies are more like religious revivals, that voters are being deluded into following this freshman senator with dazzling oratorical gifts and the power to sell hope without asking if he is remotely ready to be president. It is the beginning of a backlash actively encouraged by the former First Lady’s aides, dismayed by a phenomenon threatening to destroy what only four months ago looked like an inevitable Clinton restoration.

“Obamaphilia has gotten creepy,” said the Los Angeles Times columnist Joel Stein; Joe Klein of Time wrote: “There was something just a wee bit creepy about the mass Messianism”; Paul Krugman, a liberal columnist in The New York Times, complained: “The campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality.”

On board Mr Obama’s faintly careworn campaign plane, a charter jet carrying the senator, his Secret Service detail, a press pack that has been travelling with him for months, some with hacking coughs, and often his chief strategist and closest aide David Axelrod, Mr Obama is acutely aware of the danger that Mrs Clinton still poses, and the way her surrogates are trying to turn his extraordinary appeal against him. In the past 48 hours, the former First Lady has been telling audiences that it is time to “get real” about Mr Obama and his rhetoric. She is promising “sound solutions” to “soundbites”. When the lights are off and the speech has been made, she asks: what’s left?

“Senator Clinton of late has said ‘let’s get real’. And the implication is that the people who have been voting for me or involved in my campaign are somehow delusional,” Mr Obama said on Thursday night, “that somehow they’re being duped and that eventually they are going to see the reality of things. Well, I think they perceive the reality of what’s going on in Washing-ton very clearly.”

In their Austin debate on Thursday night, some analysts believed that there was a valedictory note in Mrs Clinton’s voice when she said: “You know, no matter what happens in this contest, I am honoured to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honoured” as she reached over to shake his hand. “You know, whatever happens, we are going to be fine.”

Mr Obama was once wary of the press, but seems willing to engage us more now. On a brief walk to the back of the plane, he shakes hands, address-es reporters by their first names and asks how families are. When I first met him in Iowa last September, he responded to my introduction with his trademark hand on shoulder and a laconic: “Hello, London Times.” He is a man clearly comfortable in his own skin – there is a hint of cockiness – with an easy charm that has been one of the reasons for his success.Mr Obama has always had a high level of self-belief, but his plane – filled with caricatures of the candidate above his slogan “Fired Up! Ready to Go!” (including one in the rear lavatory that includes the instruction “Don’t Miss”) – is a far different place than it was just a few months ago. Few of his junior staff believed then, when Mrs Clinton’s lead looked formidable, that they would still be on board today.

The candidate, fuelled on a diet of grilled chicken, salmon and a love of pistachio nuts, is even carrying himself differently. After his victory in Iowa, he physically changed, walking with his shoulders back and with a swagger that had been missing before.

Unusually, he was granted Secret Service protection a year ago after receiving death threats. A candidate does not normally get such treatment until becoming the nominee. It was a trapping that annoyed John Edwards, his rival, who dropped out of the race in January. Looking presidential can be vital to success.

Mr Obama insists that he remains grounded and is taking nothing for granted. Mrs Clinton’s stunning victory in New Hampshire on January 8, five days after his win in Iowa and against every poll and prediction, was a searing moment for the Illinois senator and his staff. Her aides’ ability to keep a flimsy allegation that he had plagiarised another speech in the media for two days this week was the latest reminder of how capable his rival’s camp is in the art of generating negative publicity.

A travelling aide said: “You would have to be inhuman not to feel great seeing 20,000 people at a rally day after day or winning ten primary contests in a row – but he knows you have to fight every day.

“But if our biggest problem is that we have thousands of people supporting us – we will take that.”



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