Posted: Jan. 31, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Democratic presidential race was characterized before John Edwards dropped out as a contest between three lawyers married to three lawyers.

And people wondered why it was so contentious?

Presidential lawyers are a way of life, whether it is Abraham Lincoln appealing to the "better angels of our nature" or Richard Nixon yelping that "I am not a crook."

Only a lawyer could quibble about what the meaning of "is" is.

One of the spousal lawyers from that former field of three candidates, now shrunk to two, spent Thursday in Delaware with stops at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington and Delaware State University in Dover.

It was not the spouse who is coping famously and courageously with cancer. It was not the one who pitched "two for the price of one." It was the one who probably is the least well-known, but if she keeps doing what she did in Delaware, that will not last long.

Even before setting foot in the state, Michelle Obama looked as though she would be the top draw zipping in here before the presidential primary on Super Duper Tuesday, when Delaware votes along with more than 20 other states and never expected to be more than an afterthought because of its tiny size.

This was before anyone knew that Barack Obama himself will arrive Sunday for a rally in Wilmington at Rodney Square, as his campaign announced after her visit.

Michelle Obama treated Delaware to one of the most electric presidential events of the last 20 years, right up there with Jesse Jackson walking through the East Side and then filling Rodney Square in 1988, and Bill Clinton at H. Fletcher Brown Park just as the campaign was breaking his way and he was surging toward the White House.

Michelle Obama is not even the candidate.

She packed the Grand, which has almost 1,200 seats, and she left people being turned away at Delaware State, because a crowd of about 1,000 had the auditorium at capacity.

At the Grand, people were moving to the rock music, chanting the Obama name and waving signs, "Obama for Change" and "Delaware for Obama" and "Vote Obama." In another century when there was not so much worry about fire codes, small boys would have been hanging from the rafters.

"You're all here singing and clapping, and I'm wondering, who's here? Is Stevie Wonder coming?" Obama joked.

Obama, a Harvard Law grad like her husband, came to make his case for change and unity, but the one for unity was a lock before she said a word.

All it took was looking behind her on the stage to see who was there and what strange bedfellows Barack Obama's candidacy has made. Lt. Gov. John Carney and Treasurer Jack Markell, the rivals for governor. Tom Gordon and Chris Coons, nemeses as the once and present New Castle County executive. Insurance Commissioner Matt Denn and City Council President Ted Blunt, competitors for lieutenant governor.

By the way, the only figure to upstage Michelle Obama was Blunt's granddaughter. Four-year-old Hannah was lifted to the microphone at the lectern and asked who she wanted to be the next president. In instant staccato she piped, "Bar-ACK O-BAH-ma!"

Michelle Obama spoke for about 50 minutes, and if her speech had been titled, it probably would have been "The Shifting of the Bar," as she tapped into a deep sense of unfairness.

She talked about the way they were told that getting out 10,000 people in sub-zero temperatures to hear Barack Obama declare his candidacy in Springfield, Ill., did not count for anything, because campaigns were about money, and when they raised the money, they were told it did not count, because campaigns were about organization, and when they put together an organization, they were told it did not count, because the campaign was about Iowa, and when Iowa went for Obama, it did not count, and so on and so on and so on.

"The bar is set, and then you meet the bar, and then they move the bar, and the bar is moving and shifting all over the place," she said as the crowd murmured its agreement.

It sounded like a new version of the literacy test, the poll tax, the grandfather clause.

She said folks know about the bar shifting, because it is shifting for them, too, as they try to pay for gas and food and rent and child care and save for retirement and worry that getting sick will leave them bankrupt.

"Now everybody's got to work, two, three jobs, and don't be a single parent in this society. The bar is moving all over. . . . We set the bar of family values, right? We make people feel bad about whether or not they can spend time with their kids, have time to chop up fresh vegetables and saute them in olive oil." she gibed.

Obama wound up with a plea for votes and volunteers.

"Barack will be the underdog in this race until the day he is sitting in the Oval Office. . . .

"I am certainly not supposed to be standing here potentially to become the next first lady of the United States. . . .

"We have a chance here, Delaware, to give people a reason to believe."

How good was Michelle Obama? The people behind her, the ones who make their livings by giving speeches themselves, were mesmerized.

"It's been a long time coming," said Sam Lathem, the state AFL-CIO president who is also a preacher and Democratic power.

"Over the top. Over the top," said Penrose Hollins, a New Castle County Democratic councilman.

It was strange how this triumphant Michelle Obama could be such a sharp reminder of another woman, who went to the same law school as her husband, who did not stay home to bake cookies, who entered the political world at her husband's side, and who also believes a new hour has come around at last.

No one knows how the 2008 election will turn out, but if it goes the way the people at the Grand want, the Clintons will be transitional, the pathway that makes the Obamas transformational.