More than 3,000 people packed a gym at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City on Wednesday to hear Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
“My voice is a little hoarse, my eyes are a little bleary, my back is a little sore, but my spirit is strong,” he told the crowd. “And I am ready to bring about change in America, how about you?”
Obama reveled in his Jersey City audience, and his campaign staff urged the impassioned crowd to take a more active role in the February 5 primary in a state where Hillary Clinton has won most of the party establishment endorsements and maintains a double digit lead in independent polls.
“We’re thrilled, honored and proud to welcome the most intriguing, the most exciting, the most inspiring, dynamic candidate on the national front,” Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy told the crowd crammed into bleachers behind the main stage, and on the hardwood in several penned-off sections in the gym on JFK Boulevard.
Healy, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Rep. Steve Rothman are Obama’s key supporters in New Jersey.
“Obama and New Jersey, perfect together,” Booker said in a nearly pitch perfect Gov. Thomas Kean imitation.
As part of the buildup to Obama’s appearance, State Campaign Director Mark Alexander said the campaign has set up offices around the state, petitioned and rallied, most recently last weekend at six locations. It’s not enough, he added.
“Today, after you hear from Barack Obama, we’re going to go set up at the back of this room, and you’re going to find things you can do today to get him into the White House,” Alexander told the crowd. “You can talk about phone canvassing, fliers you’ll be able to do, we’re going to go to the PATH stations, I want everybody to leave here with something to do today, and then on Saturday, day of action, 23 actions around the state, phone canvassing, door to door, visibility, sign waving.”
Rep. Bill Pascrell, who spent the weekend in New Hampshire helping Clinton pull off a win despite polls showing an Obama victory, said the New York senator had endured the solitary confinement of her campaign’s worst moments, made the leap for human contact, and on Tuesday was rewarded with victory.
“I know exactly what she’s talking about when she said she’s found her voice,” said Pascrell. “A vote is an emotional connection and you have to bring a person into the campaign. I believe Hillary has found her voice and is now in her comfort zone.”
Pascrell’s job was to try to convince fire fighters who had supported Sen. Chris Dodd to back Clinton in the aftermath of Dodd’s Iowa misfire and subsequent retirement from the presidential race. He also talked to police officers, nurses, sheet metal workers and transportation workers before returning to New Jersey late Tuesday night after Clinton eked out a victory over Obama, 39% to 37%, and picked up 46% of the women’s vote, compared to 34% for the Illinois senator.
Next up to stump for Clinton, Sen. Robert Menendez prepared to go to Nevada on Friday as the campaigns regroup off of Iowa and New Hampshire.
“Nevada is one of the states that has the largest percentage of Latino voters,” said Menendez, who wants to discuss with voters in the Silver State what he says is the respect Clinton enjoys in the Latino community. The Nevada primary is scheduled for Jan. 19th, and there are 33 delegates at stake. Hispanics make up 19.7% of Nevada’s population.
There were undecided voters on the street among those who tried to get into the event but couldn’t once the gym reached capacity. “”To me, his candidacy is an opportunity to see how America really is, and how multicultural and diverse we are,” said Mashuna Harley, a teacher from Jersey City. “I think we are still viewed in a certain way that is not conducive to a melting pot. Edwards, Hillary and Obama all have great points, and I have to pray to find out who’s my pick.”
Entering to the strains of U2’s “City of Blinding Lights” with his Jersey allies behind him — Healy, Booker, Rothman, state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, Alexander and volunteers from NJ for Obama — Obama proceeded to give the same stump speech he’s been making for weeks, amped up with a refrain from his Tuesday night concession speech of “Yes, we can,” and with a few subtle twists and hard underlines.
“I’m a Democrat,” he said, invoking the names of Jefferson, Jackson, Roosevelt and Kennedy, hitting the Wednesday boast by Clinton backers that their candidate was drawing more support from the core of the party than Obama, who appeals to Democrats as well as to Independent voters.
“We’ve always been at our best when we lead by conviction not calculation,” Obama said, a direct poke at Clinton, who questioned whether Obama could protect the country from terrorists and a woman’s right to choose.
Her husband even called Obama’s campaign “the biggest fairy tale he’d ever seen.”
“Bill Clinton hurt me today,” Newark Councilman Ron Rice, Jr had said. “In my estimation they will stoop to any level to win this nomination. They’re going to use what Republicans use against Democrats to pit Democrats against Democrats, and now Barack has to bring light to it, and not more heat.”
Rice also said the Clinton campaign has repeatedly borrowed symbols and phrases from the Obama campaign.
“I cannot tell you how excited and fired up she is,” Terry McAuliffe, chair of the Hillary for President Committee, told reporters today in a conference call on Wednesday, picking up on a familiar chant from the Obama campaign, “Fired up, ready to go,” two weeks after Obama’s closing stump speech line – “Let’s go change the world,” apparently inspired the Clinton campaign to select Big Head Todd and the Monsters’ Blue Sky as its new song. The chorus is, “Change the world.”
Obama sprinkled his Jersey City speech with a few more fighting words, reminding the crowd that in his presidential run he hasn’t taken PAC money or money from federal lobbyists, another dangling jab at Clinton, who’s taken more special interest money than the other candidates.
And he made sure to hit her on the war, noting that America spends $9 to $10 billion per month in Iraq — money that could be better spent — and here Healy and Booker, seated side by side clapped hard — in Jersey City and Newark.
He said America is ready for a leader who does not believe that “the only way to look tough is to walk and talk and vote like George W. Bush” – another shot at Clinton, who in 2002 voted to authorize Bush to go to war in Iraq.
“My Republican opponent won’t be able to say I voted for the war in Iraq because I didn’t,” said Obama. “I want to go to the United Nations across the river and say, ‘America is back.’”
Rothman had worked that theme too in his remarks to the crowd.
“Whether you’re a Democrat, Independent or Republican, so many Americans want fundamental change,” said the congressman. “That will only happen… if we get a Democrat elected president. And the only Democrat who can win the general election is Barack Obama.”
At a house party in Hillsborough on election night in New Hampshire with their candidate going down in defeat, his supporters said it was time for Obama to get a little more specific about policy. To that, Obama in Jersey City offered up a slogan he’s used for months, as he claimed to pursue “a politics not about slogans but substance.”
But the crowd loved it. “This guy’s not a person anymore, he’s a movie,” said Hoboken Councilman Michael Russo.