At a pep talk at a Barack Obama canvassing event in Jersey City today, U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman, Obama’s northeast regional co-chair, had a friendlier audience than at last month’s Democratic State Convention.
At the convention, when Rothman took the podium to stump for Obama (and some would say knock Sen. Hillary Clinton), he drew scattered applause and some boos from an audience that had just hours before heard Clinton give a rousing speech. Obama didn’t attend. This time, his audience was made up of about 60 Obama volunteers, who met in Van Vorst Park before going door to door to hear pep talks from two of Obama’s most prominent New Jersey supporters: Rothman and Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy.
Today’s event in Jersey City had a counterpart in Camden County, where State Senator and Congressional candidate John Adler, an early Obama backer, was called in to rally the supporters.
“Don’t be distressed by the polls you see. Don’t be distressed by these national polls – they’ll change in a heart beat,” said Rothman, pointing out that in 2004, John Kerry was 17 points behind Dean in Iowa but still managed to pull off a victory.
But at least in New Jersey, the polls look worse for Obama than they did for Kerry in Iowa. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed Hillary Clinton leading him for the Democratic nomination by a margin of 46-15%. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of the state’s most prominent politicians are casting their lot with Clinton – even here in Hudson County, where native son Sen. Bob Menendez has endorsed her along with the local U.S. Rep, Albio Sires. By all accounts, it looks like a tough hill to climb – even in the type of ethnically diverse urban center where Obama supporters think their candidate is a natural fit.
But, Rothman said, once people realize that Obama is a “once in a generation” candidate who opposed the Iraq war from the get go, minds will change.
“Every one of you who talk to cynical and skeptical relatives and friends, you know you see it in their eyes – they know he’s the best,” said Rothman. “They know it. They’re just afraid to go out on a limb and make it happen.”
In his speech, Healy held up Obama as the one man who could restore the world’s good will to the United States, relating a story about his sister looking into getting Irish citizenship for her travels to Spain because she was afraid Americans were not well received.
“That’s all due to one person,” said Healy, referring to Bush. “Out of all the people out there running for president, the person with the wisdom, courage and charisma to lead this country in the right direction and turn that all around is Barack Obama.
But even here on Healy’s turf – and even within the Hudson County Democratic Organization, which he chairs — Obama isn’t ahead of Clinton. A recent Jersey Journal column by Agustin Torres argued that Healy made a mistake in backing Obama so early in a city he may not be able to deliver for him, and has been unable to raise much money even from within his own organization.
“If the candidate is the best person, that’s the way it is, whether I got on two years ago, next week, next month or right now, today,” responded Healy. “I’m going to stay with this right until the end.”
As for the other members of the HCDO who haven’t back Obama, Healy said “I certainly am going to talk to my colleagues and try to persuade them to support the person I think this country needs at this time.. but this is not a dictatorship, it’s a democracy. I don’t twist peoples’ arms.”
That Obama was the best candidate for the job – in other words, the most different from Bush – was the overarching theme of today’s event. New Jersey for Obama Co-Chair Julie Diaz, of Perth Amboy, said that it’s tough to overcome Clinton’s name recognition, but that once voters get engaged they’re going to catch up. And, while she downplayed the importance of endorsements, she said she thinks they’ll pick up.
“We hope that politicians make endorsements based on who they think will be the best candidate, not to safest one to bet on,” said Diaz.
As the canvassers spilled into the streets of downtown Jersey City to knock on doors of registered Democratic voters amongst chants of “Fire it up!”, at least one group, made up primarily of Young Lawyers for Obama, ran into a problem. It wasn’t that they were encountering Clinton supporters hostile to Obama or voter indifference. It was that very few people answered their doors.
Perhaps it was because this was a Saturday morning, and residents could have easily mistaken the flyer toting Obama supporters for a group of Jehova’s Witnesses. But it wasn’t residents’ religions the canvassers were trying to convert. It was their votes.