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Can a political rock star maintain momentum?

By
May 23, 2007

Sen. Barack Obama (AP)The huddle of folks under the basketball hoop can't get enough snapshots with the man, so it's dark by the time Sen. Barack Obama finally says goodbye and emerges from the Simpson College gym in Indianola, Iowa.

Obama slips into a group photo with local campaign volunteers, and in a camera flash he's alone again on a pathway leading to his waiting motorcade.

He gets close to the driveway and then he's stopped by one last reporter with one last question.

The Illinois Democrat puts his hand on the reporter's shoulder and remembers how they talked two weeks earlier at a massive Earth Day rally. So, he's asked, what's it like appearing at much smaller venues?

Obama starts answering, but then he cuts himself off. He has spotted something out of the corner of his eye, so he breaks away from the path and presses his rail-thin silhouette against a chain-link fence.

How's it going, he asks a group of surprised college kids walking off the soccer field. They stop in their tracks, and Obama makes the connection through the fence.

That's how he's campaigning these days: using small talk to smaller groups.

It could be a couple of hundred folks in the school gym, or it could be a half-dozen outside. He's just a few months into his presidential campaign. It began with great fanfare and crowds so large they could smother a football field.

Now he seems intent to connect with people eyeball to eyeball.

As he does, he's dealing with the expectations game and the "rock star" standard his campaign worked so hard to create.

At the Simpson College event in Indianola this month, the press corps raised eyebrows when organizers had to scramble to remove a few dozen empty chairs at the last minute — lest the cameras show just a respectable, though not standing-room-only, crowd.

Meanwhile, after all the early fanfare, critics are demanding detailed policy papers to go with the Obama hype. The Economist already has dusted off the 1984 line that was used to belittle that cycle's new face on the scene, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado.

"Where's the beef?" the magazine asks.

When Obama finally wanders back to the darkened pathway, he says these smaller venues are critical as he builds his movement. He says they help him learn things from real people so he'll have something to say when he does go back to the big stage.

In Indianola, he heard from a high-school senior who didn't know how she was going to pay for college. He heard from a man whose son can't find a job and blames illegal immigrants. He heard worries about the environment, the lack of mass transit.

Obama says it's early, that his campaign is still in the listening mode. He says he won't rush to release all the policy plans because of somebody else's expectations.

"To some degree, because our crowds have been so big and the attention we received is so high, people have sort of attempted to accelerate our timetable," he says. "We're very comfortable with the pace we're on."

And with that, he walks briskly to the driveway, where his motorcade whisks him away.

Obama didn't get the "rock star" image by accident. It was a carefully choreographed effort, right down to the sound effects and camera angles.

Look back at Earth Day in late April. The scene is a grass-covered hillside at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

The sun beats down and anticipation builds like beads of sweat.

In the back of the crowd, folks are squinting. It's nearly a football field's distance to the stage. In between, it's a solid sea of people, some swaying to the rock music.

Any minute now, they expect to see the senator pop up on-stage. But Obama doesn't take the easy route. A buzz grows in the back of the huge gathering. Thousands of heads turn.

There he is. There, there … He's way in the back in a bright, white shirt. He's slowly making his way down a narrow pathway through the humanity. People reach to touch him. He touches them back.

Finally, he hops up some stairs, gives hugs to the VIPs and steps onto a simple platform, where he'll spend much of the next hour talking about the state of the union, the fate of the planet and this moment in history that he — and they — are supposed to seize.

Obama might cut the slightest physical profile in the race to win the nomination at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. But his speaking voice projects the most gravity.

"As I approached this campaign, I had to ask myself, 'Why now? Why us?' " Obama tells the Iowa City crowd, which has grown as quiet as a church congregation. "The answer is because the country is calling us. History beckons us."

There's silence as he denounces the "cynicism" he thinks has taken over the society, cheers when he talks about hope.

The crowd is hushed when he talks about the environment, and applauds when he talks about enacting tougher, California-like pollution standards.

Folks roar their approval when he talks about health insurance for "every single American."

A tense silence takes over when he talks about the war in Iraq. Then the crowd raises its voice along with him when he alludes to rival candidates serving in Congress and says the war "should have never been authorized."

Without naming Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, he has tried to set himself up as the one major candidate who was on record against the war before it started.

By the time he leaves the stage, the people in the grass are riled up and swaying to the Motown song, "Your Love is Lifting Me Higher."

This is how Obama has earned his "rock star" reputation — up on the big stage. But, as he's learning, he has to connect at ground level, too.

Consider his appearance the night before Earth Day, when he kept a long-standing commitment to address a conference of community organizers in the Des Moines suburb of Johnston.

The speech is billed as being "nonpolitical," and those who show up solely to see Obama are told they'll have to pay the fees and join the organization if they want to attend. A handful of people do, not knowing much about the group they've just joined, the Iowa Citizens Action Network.

In this setting, he's subdued, even if the majority of his words are the very same ones he delivers to rousing response on the stump.

The performance, the material and the man have to stand on their own merits — and in this crowd he gets warm applause. But after the speech, one of the regular Obama trackers at the press table declares that the rock star was "kind of flat tonight."

Fairly or unfairly, Obama is being judged not only for himself, but for the excitement that is expected to surround him.

Political writers often compare him to the Kennedys — either to another wartime "change" candidate, the slain Robert F. Kennedy of 1968, or his brother, the assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

Bruce Gronbeck, director of the Center for Media Studies and Political Culture at the University of Iowa, prefers to compare Obama to a pair of 1970s Democrats: Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern.

"They both offered clear, value- and morality-based perspectives from which they hung their policies," and Obama is doing that now, Gronbeck says.

Though Obama still trails Clinton in national polls and John Edwards in the latest Iowa surveys, Gronbeck said he has the advantage of not carrying the same "baggage" as the others — particularly on Iraq.

That distinction, combined with Obama's power of personality, has brought out curious, undecided voters.

Before his appearance in Indianola, his campaign called Miriam Bower, a retired English teacher and registrar at Simpson College, asking if she'd introduce Obama at the basketball gym.

Why did they call her? "Because I'm old," says Bower, who is in her 70s. The campaign tells her it wants a senior citizen to introduce Obama that night.

By the end of the evening, Obama won some new supporters the old-fashioned way: By looking people right in the eye.

As she leaves the gym, Bower is giddy and gushing: "He's so charming — he gives me goose bumps."

(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer at sprengelmeyerm(at)shns.com or 515-244-2396.)