Obama must contend with a tough, old machine


Sen. Barack Obama already faced a difficult task in New Jersey, which is Hillary Clinton country by the reckoning of most pollsters, and not surprisingly given the old entrenchments of her husband’s campaigns here.

Then on the weekend before Monday’s event at the War Memorial in Trenton there was the news coming out of Missouri that people were snoozing while Obama talked, literally slumped over with their eyes shut within earshot of the so-called master speaker.

No big deal maybe, but it signaled the idea that certain Democrats yearned for the candidate to demonstrate more than simply the uniqueness of his candidacy.

Obama had all of the build-up, but could he in his best oratorical moments offer precision of policy?

He was an elegant question mark as he bounded onto the stage in front of those Jersey union workers, tough guys out of Perth Amboy and Edison and Port Newark, toll workers like Barry Kushner who want to know when the war is going to end and dealers at Caesar’s like Sharon Mussino who want to know when the worker intimidation is going to end, and to judge by the immediate reaction of the people, the Illinois senator delivered with his presence if not level of detail.

In that square building made to honor the dead, it was hard to imagine anybody asleep Monday.

But the primary contest’s essential divide goes deeper than Obama’s ability on any given day to sustain crowds with his speech and demeanor. It remains a political battle, where the recently wounded of past campaigns are now the revitalized champions of Obama’s chief adversary.

The young, believing faces among the Obama ranks on Monday did not project a sense of the doom of defeat. And that’s what Camp Hillary has in its favor in Jersey, where most of the big-shots, money players and operatives staggered right up out of that devastating John Kerry loss in ’04 to claim their place with Clinton, which is where they were back in the early and mid-1990s, when they worked with Hillary to elect her husband.

If Kerry was a blip of a campaign between two Clintons, his organizers put enough time and energy into his candidacy to feel vitally connected. The state organization was so good here they figured Kerry’s people had covered themselves in other states, particularly in the critical ones.

“We knew the presidential election in ’04 was going to come down to Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida,” says Tom Barrett, a one-time Kerry standard-bearer who like so many others is now with the Clinton campaign.

Only a man on the greatest fool’s errand of all time would get caught in Florida with no campaign infrastructure in the Sunshine State after what happened in 2000 with Al Gore and hanging chads. Kerry was ready to do battle there in ’04, though he would ultimately lose that state to Bush.

The Dems would also be prepared in Pennsylvania, and there they would win. Steven Lenox of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO boasts that Jersey’s heavy union contingent alone did so well in Jersey they were crossing the river and drumming up key support for Kerry in Pennsylvania.

Then there was Ohio, and the best way to understand the impact of that state on the mind-set of the combatants now is that there were Kerry apologists after ’04, and Barrett isn’t one of them.

“Here we were in August coming out of the convention and we learn that Kerry has no organization on the ground in Ohio – and that (Karl) Rove has had his people in there organizing for a year,” Barrett recalled incredulously.

Nursing their wounds from the Kerry crack-up, it’s veteran operatives like him who detest the notion that their machine might get outflanked by a fledgling internet outfit like the Obama campaign.

It’s no accident Clinton’s smothering Obama by 20 percentage points in Jersey, according to a Quinnipiac University poll taken last month.

“He’s an electric speaker, if you haven’t heard him you’re in for a treat,” Democratic State Party Chairman Joseph Cryan said of the candidate, shaking his head at a question about whether he’d consider changing his endorsement of a month ago. “I welcome everyone who comes here. I attended two events for (New Mexico Gov. Bill) Richardson when he was here.”

But he’s still a Hillary man.

There is the grassroots movement and there is the machine.

Obama must contend with a tough, old machine