RALEIGH, N.C. – Barack Obama, propelled to within touching distance of the Democratic nomination by an emphatic win in North Carolina and a stronger-than-expected showing in Indiana, made light of Hillary Clinton’s hopes for a “game-changing” result during his victory speech here last night.
“Today, what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, D.C.,” Obama told a large crowd at NCSU’s Reynolds Coliseum.
The audience, like the candidate, seemed to be savoring a sense of exhilaration and relief. The most turbulent weeks of his campaign had concluded with results that forcefully rebutted doubts the Clinton campaign had sought to plant about his electability and tenacity.
His speech seemed to go some way to solving other, more nebulous, problems too.
In recent weeks, Obama has been assailed from some quarters for having allowed his candidacy to slip off the high road by getting into tit-for-tat scraps with his opponent. Yet he has also been accused by others –notably Clinton stalwart James Carville, who called his manliness into question — of having shown insufficient fight.
The key passage from last night’s address was an attempt to untangle that dilemma. Obama stated that smear campaigns and personal attacks would be run against any Democratic candidate, “whether it is myself or Senator Clinton.”
“The question then is not what kind of campaign they will run; it’s what kind of campaign we will run,” he said, to loud applause. “It’s what we will do to make this year different. You see, I didn’t get into this race thinking that I could avoid this kind of politics. But I am running for president because this is the time to end it.”
He presented it, not for the first time, as a decision America would have to make about its politics.
“Don’t ever forget that we have a choice in this country,” Obama urged the crowd at the climax of his speech. “We can choose not to be divided…we can choose not to be afraid…we can still choose this moment to finally come together and solve the problems we’ve talked about all those other years and all those other elections. This time can be different than all the rest.”
The speech had at least two other notable aspects. It contained several overt professions of patriotism, and it included a clear message that it was time for Democrats to coalesce.
The Illinois senator twice referred to his “love” of his country and he concluded his speech with the phrase “May God bless you and the United States of America.” Neither formulation was regularly heard in speeches in the early days of his candidacy.
Obama asserted that one crucial factor should bind Democrats well before November’s presidential election: “We can’t afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush’s third term.”
Democratic unity is, as things currently stand, not a given. When Obama congratulated Clinton on appearing to win Indiana – a concession that would for a while seem premature, since the result remained in doubt for around four hours after he left the stage — a smattering of boos could be heard in the arena.
But Obama did not miss the opportunity to remind superdelegates of how close he is to victory. He emphasized that he was now “less than 200 delegates away from securing the Democratic nomination.” (That calculation doesn’t include delegates from the non-sanctioned primaries in Florida and Michigan.)
The air of renewed confidence enveloped Obama aides as well as the senator himself. Chief strategist David Axelrod made his way through the crowd, slapping the backs and pumping the hands of campaign volunteers.
“We feel really great about the position we’re in, despite the tortured constructions we’re getting from the Clinton side,” he told reporters. “We believe the momentum and the superdelegates will continue to go our way and we will be where we need to be before the convention.”
Obama supporters were jubilant. Declaring herself “even more inspired” by having seen the candidate in person for the first time, 33-year-old Renee Edwards praised the senator’s “vision for the nation” and said that “he just makes you trust him.”
Edwards, a consultant in Raleigh who is African-American, also dismissed talk of racial divisiveness in the nominating contest.
“I think Barack is bridging that gap. Look at what he has done tonight,” she said. “And this is in a southern state.”
The epic nomination battle of 2008 felt to everyone in the room like it was, at last, reaching a conclusion.