Obama Conjures the Kennedys in Jersey City

Three points short in New Hampshire, Barack is still coming strong

Every pundit and pollster was still insisting that something must have gone badly wrong for Barack Obama the night before in the snows of New Hampshire as the line down John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City kept growing last Wednesday. The line went down the street and around the corner at St. Peter's College, and it was clear by 3 p.m. that at least a third of those waiting patiently for the rally with the Democratic senator from Illinois weren't even going to make it into the gym at the school's Yanitelli Center, which had a capacity 2,000 people.

But there wasn't much griping or a whole lot of second thoughts about New Hampshire to be heard either.

"This is history for me," said self-declared senior citizen Louise Gay, who walked to the school from her home a couple of blocks away.

Brandon Kelly, 31, took a half-day off from her job as a marketer in Manhattan to catch Obama. "I only get two and a half weeks off all year," she said. "So that makes this a big deal for me."

Behind her, a couple from the Jersey suburbs said they couldn't resist. "He's saying what people have been waiting to hear for the last seven terrible years," said Judy Goldstein.

Then there was Charlie Hannon, 80, who wore a peaked VFW cap with gold piping and planted himself at the gym's entrance with a picket sign reading "Veterans for Obama." Hannon was the only vet in sight, but he swore there were others inside. Born and raised in Jersey City, Hannon said he served with the Navy in the South Pacific in World War II. "I enlisted when I was 17," he said.

According to the thinking of those trying to read the New Hampshire exit polls, Hannon is the rarest of birds: a working-class white guy who wants to see Obama in the White House. His type apparently went in droves for Hillary Clinton in the Granite State's southern tier, where the old manufacturing towns are located. So did women, whose ballots were the biggest reason Obama came up some 7,500 votes short.

But his 3 percent miss merited only shrugs from those waiting in line, Hannon among them. One reason he likes Obama so much, he said, is because he's against the Iraq War. "You know, anyone who's been in a war doesn't want to see another one," he said. "And he's young, he's not corrupt. I don't see what Hillary's done that's so great."

Did he really believe a black man could pull it off in America? "Oh yeah," he said. "We can't think like that anymore. Those days are gone. He did pretty well already in those white states, didn't he?"

Actually, he did better than well. The primary-night chatterers obsessed over how the polls—which had Obama up by an average of eight points—could have been so universally wrong. The pundits took that mistake personally, as though their own screwup was somehow more important than the fact that someone was out there making history, as in "Black candidate nearly takes two white states." No one got around to mentioning that only 12 weeks before, Obama had been down by some 20 points. Back then, reporters were busy typing the words "Hillary" and "presumptive winner" in the same sentence over and over.

By the time Obama got to St. Peter's, there were still 1,000 people outside who couldn't get in. The candidate made those inside the gym wait while he spoke to the crowd on the street. When he was finally spotted making his way into the gym, the throngs in the bleachers erupted. Instead of bounding to the stage as he did last summer at a packed Brooklyn hotel ballroom, and last fall when some 25,000 turned out for him in Washington Square Park, he walked slowly to the mic. He bought himself sympathy with his opening lines: "My voice is a little hoarse. My eyes are a little bleary. My back is sore. But my spirit is strong."

He then went on to give what to those working hacks who must listen to him over and over is logged in this way: standard stump speech—except that there is nothing standard about it other than the fact that almost each time he gives it, he lifts the crowd on wings they'd forgotten they had.

He tells these crowds how "we are at a defining moment in our nation, a period when we see our dreams slipping away." He reminds them of how they were cheated by the current administration: "People were promised a compassionate conservatism; instead they got Katrina and wiretapping." And he tells them that this time, Democrats can only win by taking a chance: "We can't win this race if we live in fear of losing it," he says.

In earlier versions of this speech, he answered critics who say he is too young and inexperienced by citing the extensive résumés of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Since late November, he has substituted this resonating touch: "I am running because of what Dr. King called 'the fierce urgency of now,' " he said slowly, adding: "Because there is such a thing as being too late."

Next Page »