RICHMOND, Va., Feb. 10 — If the receptions Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton respectively received at a gathering of influential Democrats last night in Richmond is any indication, Clinton is in for another tough result when Virginia holds its primary on Tuesday.
The stark difference in enthusiasm was noticeable even in passing. Outside the Stuart C. Siegel Center, which played host to the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, a couple hundred of Obama supporters beating drums, wearing paper Obama masks and holding giant white letters spelling Obama’s name urged passing cars to honk. Many of them did.
A quieter group of Hillary supporters had less success.
Inside, there was more of that. The same giant cardboard Obama letters flanked the dozens of crowded tables on the floor, and dwarfed the “Hillary” signs lined up between the A, the M and the A. From the stage, past and current governors of Virginia boasted about their endorsements for Obama. Chants of O-ba-ma broke out intermittently from the rafters.
Clinton, her hair flatter than usual and her chances sinking in Washington and Nebraska, soldiered through.
Taking the podium under an enormous Jumbo screen, Clinton struck positive and even sweeping notes that received solid, if not ecstatic, applause from the crowd.
”Hello, Virginian Democrats—that sounds so good,” said Clinton. “I am delighted and honored to be here with you this evening.”
Clinton thanked Virginians for electing Senator Jim Webb and expressed her hope for the election to the Senate of Mark Warner, who ran for president last year as a moderate Democrat, but was essentially forced out of the race by his inability to compete with Clinton for that space.
As Clinton spoke about how the next president would be inaugurated with “his or her hand on the Bible” and talked about mortgages and tuitions voters couldn’t afford, a television anchor stood up on a riser and told his camera about Obama’s overwhelming victories in Nebraska and Washington as they became official.
Clinton had only pleasant words for her rival, though she draw the usual contrast with Obama (and John McCain) by saying that she is the “only candidate left in this race, Democrat or Republican, with a health care plan that will cover every single man woman and child.”
Other than that, her sights fell on President George Bush and the likely Republican nominee, John McCain.
Bush’s way, said Clinton, was to “shred the constitution,” and “smear dissenters” and said that with “Senator McCain as the likely Republican nominee, Republicans have chosen more of the same.”
In perhaps her best-received line of the night, Clinton said “President Bush has already put his stamp of approval on Senator McCain’s conservative credentials”—she waited a beat, then smiled—“and I’m sure that will help.” Addressing her opponent’s criticism that she had too much in common with Bush, Clinton argued “I will be among those most happy to see the moving van leaving the White House” and announced herself “ready to go toe-to-toe with Senator McCain whenever and wherever he desires.”
With Mr Inspiration and Hope due to take the stage later in the evening, Clinton did her best to make remarks with some historic and narrative sweep. Judging from the audience’s reaction, it wasn’t a bad effort.
Her “I see an America” refrain (in which the country she envisions stands up to oil companies, employs the unemployed, builds schools, makes college affordable) was followed by her taking a step back to appreciate the historic scope of the election. “Neither Senator Obama, nor I, nor many of you in this room were included in that original vision,” she said, but evoked “a movement of men and women”—the abolitionists, suffragists, progressives and civil rights activists—who made the voting rights shared by the diverse group of people in the room something everyone now took “for granted.”
She folded herself into a narrative that seems most closely associated now with Obama, that the next generation would “take it for granted that a woman or an African-American can be president of the United States.”
“That is the genius of our Constitution” she said. “It was crafted to expand as our hearts do.”
After her speech, Obama’s entrance to the stage resulted in an eruption.
Obama excels in large, friendly, partisan settings like the Jefferson-Jackson dinners (the address he gave to one back in Iowa is considered a watershed speech of his candidacy). And while his message of change has remained essentially unaltered, he has added concrete wins to the feel-good rhetoric.
“And today,” Obama said after taking the stage,“voters from the West Coast to the Gulf Coast to the heart of America stood up to say, ‘Yes we can.’ We won in Louisiana. We won in Nebraska. We won in Washington State. We won north and we won south and we won in between and I believe that we can win in Virginia on Tuesday if you’re ready to stand for change.”
At that point the candidate, and the crowd reaction, essentially turned it into an Obama rally.
While Clinton had kept her speech as bland and non-combative against Obama, he showed no such concern, turning his requisite criticisms of McCain into veiled shots at Clinton.
Referring to McCain’s about-face on opposing the Bush tax cuts, Obama said “This is what happens when you spend too long in Washington.”
With a nod to his own opposition to the authorization of the war in Iraq, he said “I am looking forward to having a debate with John McCain about foreign policy,” and when he argued that he would make the better Democratic nominee against McCain, the understood point was understood.
“It’s a choice between debating John McCain about lobbying reform with a nominee who has taken more money from lobbyists than he has,” said Obama, “or doing it with a campaign that hasn’t taken a dime of their money because we’ve been funded by you—the American people.”
He added, “And it’s a choice between taking on John McCain with Republicans and independents already united against us, or running against him with a campaign that’s uniting Americans of all parties around a common purpose.”
Then, he tacitly argued against Clinton’s electability.
“There is a reason why the last six polls in a row have shown that I’m the strongest candidate against John McCain,” he said. “It’s because I’ve done better among independents in almost every single contest we’ve had.”
At times, Obama chose to take Clinton head-on, especially when talking about health care, which has emerged as the major domestic fault line between the two.
“I know what it takes to pass health care reform because I’ve done it—not by demonizing anyone who disagrees with me,” said Obama, this time echoing one of the criticisms against Clinton’s hardball tactics in trying to pass healthcare reform in 1993. A few minutes later he added “I know that Senator Clinton likes to point out the difference between our health care plans, there is a real difference here. Because Senator Clinton has said that the only way to provide universal health care is to say that we will go after your wages if you don’t buy health care. Well, I believe the reason people don’t have health care isn’t because they don’t want to buy, it’s because they can’t afford it.”
The Clinton campaign has repeatedly pointed out that the Obama plan requires coverage for children and thus would also have similar payment enforcements for the parents of those children. Furthermore, many health care experts argue that Clinton’s plan is a more proven route to universal health care.
In what was perhaps an accurate indication of the way the primaries have played out so
far, the Obama supporters made all the noise, but some attendees quietly moved toward Clinton.
“I think Barack Obama is exciting, but there is no there there,” said Cathy Smith, a 58-year-old marketing executive from Fairfax who said that she had started the day still undecided about who to vote for. “Given the crowd, I was actually hoping for something more from him—some more detail and substance. She did that.”
Ryan Abbott, a 34-year-old teacher from Richmond, disagreed.
“Obama did a really good job of distinguishing himself from Hillary and McCain,” he said. “McCain is always seen as this outside Republican, but today he did a good job of saying he really is not different from Bush.”