Caucus-Eve: Obama Woos Elko

| Fri Jan. 18, 2008 5:08 PM PST

Elko is a tiny town, but in the mountainous, snowy vastnesses of eastern Nevada, three hundred miles to the east of Reno, it passes for a metropolis.

Barack Obama, wrapping up his caucus campaigning in the state, came to this overwhelmingly white town in conservative ranching and mining country to speak. The venue his campaign selected for the rally was the town's high school, a large brick building adjacent to a sprawling cemetery.

Unlike Edwards' event in Reno last night, Obama's had all the trappings of superstardom:

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Elko's bomb squad was out in force; Secret Service men stood guard at the perimeter; huge flags adorned the auditorium and in the run-up to the speeches martial music was blasted out by a local brass band. The banner-wavers sitting on the platform behind the speakers all waved "hope" and "change" placards. And a large cordoned off area, complete with wireless internet, catered to the busloads of journalists disgorged half an hour before the event began. There was none of that for Edwards yesterday.

There's nothing bootstraps about this operation. It's a slick, well-oiled, scrupulously efficient machine…and that's both good and bad. On the one hand, on the eve of the Nevada caucus—fresh off the court victory in Las Vegas allowing the casino workers (whose union has endorsed Obama) to vote outside regular caucus hours, and locations, on the Strip—Barack Obama seems to be edging back into front-runner position. There's a poise and a confidence to the Obama people that Hillary Clinton and her tean used to have, back before Iowa dented her sense of invulnerability. If Obama wins Nevada, he will have proven himself as a viable western candidate; and if he does that, he will truly enter the two weeks leading up to the February 5th mega-primary as the man to beat.

And that brings me to the flip side of all the poise and clinical precision of the Obama machine. Obama's extraordinary rise is due to his claiming of the mantle of change, of freshness, of hope for the new. Edwards' blue collar union supporters are passionate for their man, but, however unfairly, burly unionists can come off as passé in today's America. Hillary Clinton's supporters have to wrestle with the charge she's old-hat. Obama, by contrast, is defined as new, and that's why he's winning support not just from traditional Democrats but from people who have never voted before, as well as from Republicans alienated by the ineptitude and cronyism of the Bush administration.

Earlier today, I met a retired pilot, David Sugasa, who now runs a wildlife haven in the rugged mountains west of Winnemucca. He and his wife are Republicans—the last time he supported a Democrat for President was when JFK ran, back when Sugasa was too young to vote; but both David and his wife are seriously considering casting their support to Obama. Hope…it's one of the most powerful four-letter words out there.

But get too clinical and there's a risk "hope" sounds canned; change merely a mantra. Wave too many red, white and blue "hope" banners and the word becomes simply eye candy, its meaning lost in the miasma. There's a risk the hope placard at a superstar's rally becomes about as meaningful as lighters or cell phones waved at a rock concert.

"I decided to run because of what Dr. King called 'the fierce urgency of now.' I believe there is such a thing as being too late, and that moment is almost upon us…People all across the country want something new; they know the time for change has come," Obama told the enthusiastic Elko crowd. During his nearly forty-minute speech he said all the right things—talking about homelessness, under-funded schools, winding down the war in Iraq, closing Guantanamo, tackling global warming, keeping social security solvent, and so on—and his audience applauded in all the right places. But the raw passion that Edwards managed to draw out, both in himself and his audience, in Reno yesterday wasn't there. This rally was razzmatazz first, message second.

No doubt about it, Obama's good, he's very good. And his message of hope is both genuine and compelling. "I've seen the politics of fear," Obama said, critiquing the Bush administration's rush to war in Iraq, and proposing instead a politics of optimism and can-do change. "And I know nothing worthwhile's ever happened in this country except when somebody, somewhere decided to hope."

It's a potent message. The question is, can he retain the essence of freshness down the home-stretch, rather than simply rehashing the mantra of change at ever-more glitzy, perfectly calibrated, rallies? If he can't, down the road, way after Nevada has receded back from the spotlight, he might start to lose the support of undecided, cynical voters; months from now, those voters might start to view him as just another slick, front-runner, politician. Paradoxically, Obama-the-agent-for-change's own success could, down the road, prove to be his Achilles heel.

-- Sasha Abramsky

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