Message of hope and unity resonates in nation's first primary

Brian Wright O’Connor | 7/27/2009, 10:52 a.m.

CONCORD, N.H. — The crowd that showed up early on the morning after the Iowa caucuses to hear Barack Obama was drawn only partly by the Illinois senator’s message of hope and reconciliation.

“Sure, I like his themes. We need unity. We need change,” said a New Hampshire voter stamping his feet in the bitter frost outside Concord High School. “But most of all, we need victory.”

The skinny kid from Chicago who electrified the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, the first-term U.S. senator who defied the odds in taking on the Clinton campaign machine, the mixed-race hopeful who broke the color line in national politics, appeared poised to win New Hampshire and its prize of momentum and money — a critical test in the road to the nomination and, ultimately, the White House.

Obama’s potent mix of inspiring rhetoric and imminent power crackled like an electric charge as the Democratic frontrunner, riding the wave of his historic victory in the Iowa contest, strode into the packed gymnasium beneath a double bank of TV cameras.

His voice slightly hoarse, the 46-year-old candidate launched an immediate appeal to wring every vote from the Granite State to continue what was once dismissed as a long-shot march to the Democratic nomination for president.

“How many of you are still undecided?” he asked.

Hands went up from about a third of the audience.

“See,” he said to the young organizers standing next to him on stage. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Turning back to the largely white faces sitting elbow to elbow in the bleachers and surrounding the stage set up on the foul line, Obama invoked a biblical image to convert the faithless to his cause.

“My job is to be so persuasive in the next 20 minutes that a shaft of sunlight will come through the roof and you will then decide to vote for Obama,” he said.

A huge poster hanging beneath championship sports banners on the wall behind him proclaimed, “Change We Can Believe In,” a not-so-subtle rebuke of chief rival Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “The Change We Need” slogan. Building on that theme, the former Chicago community organizer hammered home the point that his insurgent candidacy represented the only real hope to break away from the politics of the past.

“In four days, you have a chance to change America, to do what Iowa did last night,” he said, referring to his decisive eight point victory across the state’s 99 counties.

“Our nation is at war, our planet is in peril,” he said. “We have the chance to pull together Democrats and Republicans and independents and unite as a people. In four days time, you have the chance to choose hope over fear. In four days time, you can choose unity over division and send a message that resonates all over the country.”

In a campaign season filled with evangelical rhetoric, Obama has sounded like the only tent revivalist in the bunch, spreading a secular gospel of positive change rather than the creationist themes of the fundamentalists on the other side of the political aisle.

In Iowa, that appeal translated into Obama winning over 50 percent of voters who were 44 and younger in a record turnout of 239,000 overwhelmingly white voters across the 1,784 caucus sites. For the first time in the caucuses, the proportion of young voters equaled the percentage of older voters, while over 40 percent of those who turned out for the long caucus gatherings were participating for the first time.

The open process in Iowa resulted in not only a huge surge of independents voting on the Democratic side, but also a sizeable number of Republicans who changed their registration as they entered — a factor Obama noted in his remarks in New Hampshire, where independents will play a decisive role in the outcome of the first-in-the-nation primary.

“Before Iowa, I’d be working a room and someone would lean in and whisper to me, ‘Barack, I’m a Republican and I’m supporting you,’” he said. “But last night, they weren’t whispering. They were standing in front of the TV cameras and saying, ‘I’m a Republican and I support Barack Obama.’

“If you know who you are, if you know what you believe in, if you know who you’re fighting for, you can afford to reach across the aisle,” he said.

While party rules in New Hampshire restrict Democrats and Republicans to their own primaries, Obama frequently cites his cross-party appeal as a key to victory in November’s general election. By contrast, Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards — who finished second in Iowa, just ahead of his New York rival — score much lower among independents and GOP voters.

Those numbers haven’t stopped Clinton from calling herself the most tested and most electable candidate on the Democratic side, points she raises with numbing efficiency while also calling into question Obama’s experience.

Even the would-be spouse-in-chief, former President Bill Clinton, has said a vote for Obama would be a roll of the dice given his youth — in spite of the fact that Obama is the same age that Clinton was when the man from Hope rode his own tide of heightened expectations to the White House.

Obama took that criticism head on in his Concord appearance, saying experience wasn’t the same as good judgment. “Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had the longest resumes in Washington, but look where their experience led us,” he said. “I was against the war in Iraq from the very beginning,” he added, contrasting his early stance against the conflict with Clinton’s vote in favor of giving a green light to combat.

“They say I need to be seasoned. They say I need to be stewed. They say, ‘We need to boil all the hope out of him and then he’ll be ready,” said Obama, who rejected such criticism, citing Dr. King’s invocation of the “fierce urgency of now.”

The Columbia University and Harvard Law graduate, born to a Kenyan father and Kansan mother, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, said he knew full well that turning hope into action required toughness and resolve, that his appeal to Americans to believe in something larger than themselves was more than just empty rhetoric.

“What do they say about me? ‘Oh, he’s talking about hope again. He’s no idealistic. He’s so naïve. He’s a hope-monger,’” said Obama to a chorus of laughter.

“But hope is not ignoring the hurdles and obstacles in front of you. We know the challenges that lie before us. Working together, we can overcome them.

“We will pull our party together, we will pull our country together to create the kind of America we all can believe in,” said Obama as Stevie Wonder’s voice boomed over the loudspeakers, singing, “Signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours.”

Obama waved and bounded down from the podium to shake the hundreds of hands reaching out across the rope line.

Among the skeptics won over by Obama’s performance was Frank Murphy, the former chairman of the Keene, N.H., Democratic Committee, who said he was convinced that Obama could unify divisions created by a long period of bitter partisanship in Washington.

“Obama is treated as a rock star but that’s not what moves me,” said Murphy. “I’m not one to throw my panties on the stage — and I’m sure no one would want me to. I want to see a return to the Democratic agenda in this country and I firmly believe Obama is our best shot at that because of his broad appeal.”

That appeal was evident early the next day as over 250 young volunteers fanned out from the Manchester headquarters of the Obama field operation to canvass voters.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick gave the group a rousing send-off on the second floor of a converted brick industrial building on the gritty south side of the city before tramping off in the snow himself to knock on doors and convince the undecided to pull a lever for the candidate who backed him early in the gubernatorial primary.

“This isn’t a matter of political payback,” said Patrick. “I would be here for whoever that candidate was who was calling us to common cause, urging us to reach for the best that we are, to reach across differences to rebuild a sense of community.”

Recalling his own campaign theme of “Together We Can,” Patrick urged workers to talk not just to Democrats but to every voter to bring the alienated and disappointed back into the process.

“Those who have checked out — we want you to bring them back in,” he said.

As volunteers collected clipboards, maps and canvas sheets listing voters’ names, addresses and preferences, Patrick climbed into his black GMC Yukon SUV and drove to a nearby neighborhood of suburban ranch houses fronted by mounds of snowbanks.

Accompanied by campaign aides in overcoats and barn jackets and trailed by reporters, the governor went door to door, seeking out the uncommitted, the wavering and the homebound on a crisp January morning.

At 170 Roysom Street, nobody answered the door.

At 167, “she’s not feeling well,” said Patrick, coming down the sidewalk in an oversized parka with Santa and Mrs. Claus figurines seeming to watch his back from the living room window.

Down the street, Patrick ignored a Ron Paul sign and knocked at the door of Kevin and Jennifer Verville. As if on cue, the garage door opened and the Vervilles stepped out of their Volkswagen sedan to greet the governor.

“I’ve got to give you credit,” said Verville. “We haven’t seen a lot of pols in this neighborhood.”

Jennifer, who worked for Edwards in 2004, said she was still leaning towards the millworker’s son, but took an Obama brochure anyway. Kevin thanked the governor but said he’d still vote for Paul.

“What about the general?” asked Patrick, unwilling to allow a single vote to slip away.

Asked about it as he crunched through the snow to the next house, the governor declined to comment on the most favorable match-up for his candidate in November.

“Hard to say. Things can change so fast. You don’t know what [the] issues will be, what will happen.”

Patrick paused in the middle of the street. “Why are we walking by all these houses?”

Told he was concentrating on undecided households, he shook his head.

“I told you I’m an amateur,” he said with a smile.