Sunday, April 08, 2007

"Barack Obama, in low-key mode, gains admirers"

Adam Nagourney:
COLO, Iowa: Senator Barack Obama is not big on what he calls red-meat applause lines when he campaigns in small communities like this one, just northeast of Des Moines. He does not tell many jokes. He talks in even, measured tones, and at times is so low-key that he lulls his audiences into long, if respectful, silences.
Obama likes to recount the chapters of his unusual life: growing up in Hawaii, living overseas, community organizing in Chicago, working in the Illinois Legislature, though not his years as a U.S. senator.

He talks - often in broad, general strokes - about an Obama White House that would provide health care to all, attack global warming, improve education, fix Social Security and end the war in Iraq.

His campaign events end almost as an afterthought, surprising voters used to the big finishes typically served up by the presidential candidates seeking their support. "Thank you very much, everybody; have a nice day," Obama said pleasantly in Dakota City, Iowa, one afternoon, with a leisurely wave of a hand. He headed over to a table where copies of his books, brought by audience members, had been neatly laid out, awaiting the slash of his left-handed autograph.

For most Democrats, Obama is the Illinois senator who riveted the 2004 Democratic National Convention with a keynote speech that marked him as one of the most powerful speakers his party had produced in 50 years.

But as Obama methodically worked his way across swaths of rural northern Iowa - his towering figure and skin color making him stand out at diners and veterans' homes, at high schools and community colleges - it was clear that he is not presenting himself, stylistically at least, the way he did in July 2004 when he gripped Democrats at the Fleet Center in Boston.

He is cerebral and easygoing, often talking over any applause that might rise up from his audience, and perhaps consciously trying to present a political style that contrasts with the more-charged presence of John Edwards, the former trial lawyer and senator from North Carolina, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

He rarely mentions President George W. Bush, as he disparages the partisan quarrels of Washington, and is, at most, elliptically critical of Edwards and Clinton when he notes that he had opposed the war in Iraq from the start; the two others voted to authorize the war in 2002.

His audiences are rapt, if sometimes a tad restless; long periods can go by when there is not a rustle in the crowd. Yet Iowa is not the Fleet Center, and this appeal - "letting people see how I think," as Obama put it in an interview - could clearly go a long way in drawing the support of Iowans who are turning out in huge numbers to see him in the state where the presidential voting process will start.

"He's low-key; he speaks like a professor," said Jim Sayer, 51, a farmer from Humboldt. "Maybe I expected more emotion. But the lower key impresses me: He seems to be at the level that we are."

Mary Margaret Gran, a middle-school teacher who met him when he spoke to 25 Iowans eating breakfast at a tiny diner in Colo on Friday morning, summed up her view the moment Obama had moved on to the next table.

"Rock star?" Gran said, offering the description herself. "That's the national moniker. But dazzle is not what he is about at all. He's peaceful."

Obama, wearing sunglasses as he sat in the back of a car that was taking him to a charter plane and then on to his home in Chicago for the Easter weekend, nodded when told what Sayer and Gran had said about him.

"I use a different style if I'm speaking to a big crowd; I can gin up folks pretty well," he said. "But when I'm in these town hall settings, my job is not to throw them a lot of red meat. I want to give them a sense of my thought process."

If Obama enters the room to the sounds of "Think" by Aretha Franklin and the roar of people coming to their feet, clapping and jostling for photographs, it is only moments before the atmosphere turns from campaign rally to college seminar, when he talks, for example, about the need for a "common sense, nonideological, practical-minded, generous agenda for change in this country."

This evolution, or more precisely this attention to Obama's credentials as a campaigner in communities like this, comes in a week in which he has, with the report that he had nearly matched Clinton by raising $25 million in the first quarter of presidential fund-raising, left no doubt that he had the resources, and presumably the popular support, to potentially deny her the nomination.

For Obama, his reception in Iowa has certainly changed since he came here after announcing his presidential bid in February, trailing enough reporters, press aides, advisers, family members and friends to fill a Boeing 767. Then, he was nearly suffocated at every campaign event with people craning for a look or a handshake or an autograph, or television crews shouting out a question.

Things have cooled off enough to permit Obama, dressed in his signature open-collared white shirt and loose-hanging black sports coat, to linger until almost the last person is gone.

The approach allowed for moments like one that took place at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in Dakota City, after almost everyone had gone. Obama was approached by a woman, her eyes wet.

She spoke into his ear and began to weep, collapsing into his embrace. They stood like that for a full minute, Obama looking ashen, before she pulled away. She began crying again, and Obama pulled her in for another embrace.

The woman left, declining to give her name or recount their conversation. Obama said she told him what had happened to her 20-year-old son while serving in Iraq.

"Her son died," he said. He paused. "What can you say? This happens to me every single place I go."

The next day, at the rally in Colo, Obama described the encounter for the crowd.

The woman, he said, had asked if her son's death was the result of a mistake by the government.

"And I told her the service of our young men and women - the duty they show this country - that's never a mistake," he said.

He paused carefully as he reflected on that encounter. "It reminds you why you get into politics," he said.

"It reminds you that this isn't a game."

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