Posted: Feb. 3, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

If Delaware does not vote for Barack Obama, the candidate who came here, it would be a first.

People in Delaware dance with the ones who ask them. The state is so small, so resigned to being overlooked, that the voters fall for whoever gives them a sidelong glance, the bat of an eye.

Obama came in Sunday to ask, big time, and Delawareans came out to be asked, big time.

There were 20,000 of them at Rodney Square in the heart of Wilmington, people filling the park and the broad steps near the statue of Caesar Rodney, that daring revolutionary, people standing six and eight deep in a throng around the square, people watching from the old courthouse, people crammed onto the streets spiking outwards.

"Thank you, Delaware!" Obama called. "What a spectacular crowd on a spectacular day!"

Who needed a mere football game on this Super Bowl Sunday? This was a clash for the ages, this striking figure of a slim, African-American philosopher-poet politician, coatless in the sun on an unusually bearable February day, as he asked Delaware and the country to rise above itself, to rise above this state's Jim Crow heritage, to make him the Democratic nominee, to make him the president of the United States.

In this thrust for the future, folks turned out in the numbers that political events used to draw in a bygone day of torchlight parades and picnics, when they were social gatherings and entertainment, before everything became so easily available on television and YouTube.

The size of the crowd was significant. More people saw Obama with their own eyes than voted for John Kerry in the state's Democratic presidential primary in 2004. Kerry polled 16,729 votes in a seven-candidate field to win with more than 50 percent of the total tally.

Steve Forbes won the Republican primary in 1996, the year that Delaware switched from caucuses, and he only went to a handful of civic clubs and party gatherings. Kerry only made a single visit at a union hall in front of 500 people.

Something special was happening in Rodney Square. It apparently was enough to jolt Hillary Clinton's rival Democratic campaign into a counter-move -- sending in not the candidate herself, but at least daughter Chelsea Clinton for an appearance Monday at the University of Delaware.

It all leads up to Delaware's presidential primary on Super Duper Tuesday, when more than 20 states are voting.

This hurry-up rush of attention, which began with Michelle Obama's visit Thursday, is evidence of the ferocity of the contest for the nomination. Obama appears to be cherry-picking some of the less populated states, easier to organize and easier to woo, in order to run up his total of states, building momentum, while engaging with Clinton in a virtual person-by-person combat for delegates.

"Every delegate is going to matter in this race, no matter where they're from," said state Rep. Valerie Longhurst, a Democrat who is the local chair of Women for Obama.

Obama's extravaganza was not the only eyebrow-raising sight. People got a look at Treasurer Jack Markell and Lt. Gov. John Carney, the Democrats who both want to be the next governor, delivering a tag-team introduction for Obama on the stage erected in the center of Rodney Square.

Markell went first. "Folks, today is a new day. Today the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal, is in our presence," he said.

"After eight long years of the Bush administration" --a prolonged booooo came from the crowd -- "the people of Delaware are prepared once again to cast a historic and decisive vote, just like Caesar Rodney did."

Then Carney poured it on. "It's amazing, isn't it? Sen. Obama brings us all together. He's brought Jack and myself together to this podium with all of you," he said.

"Sen. Obama, this is not Iowa, it's not New Hampshire, it's not Nevada, it's not South Carolina. We are the first state, and we earned that title because we were the first state to say, 'Yes, we can!'"

With Markell on one side of Obama and Carney on the other, the three raised their hands in the classic political-prizefighter pose.

It was enough to leave people sighing, as they did after the last presidential debate, for an electoral dream. An Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket and a Carney-Markell ticket. (Not Markell-Carney. The state constitution seems to frown on third terms for lieutenant governors.)

Obama spoke for about 45 minutes. He had nice things to say about Tom Carper and even nicer things to say about Joe Biden, both absent. Although they sat with Clinton during the State of the Union address, neither has endorsed since Biden dropped out of the presidential running, and both will be delegates to the national convention. A vote is a vote, no matter what company they keep.

Obama's speech was a bookend to Michelle Obama's. She came in and talked about unfairness, and he came in and talked about hope. His applause lines were familiar, but they gave Delawareans a golden chance to hear them in person, to cheer them in person, to be able to say they were there.

"I know how hard change is. But I also know this -- that nothing worthwhile in this country has every happened except somebody somewhere was willing to hope. That is how this nation was founded, a group of patriots like Mr. Rodney, declaring independence, standing up to the mighty British empire. Nobody gave them a chance. . . .

"That's how a new president charted a course to ensure this nation would not remain half slave and half free. That's how the Greatest Generation -- my grandfather fighting in Patton's army, my grandmother staying behind with a baby and working on an assembly line -- how that generation defeated fascism and Hitler and lifted itself out of the Great Depression.

"That's how pioneers traveled west, that's how immigrants came from distant shores, that's how women won the right to vote, that's how workers won the right to organize, that's how young people traveled South and they marched and they sat in and they suffered fire hoses and attack dogs and some went to jail and some died for freedom's cause.

"That's what hope is."

The crowd was rocking -- someone said, "He hits people hard," and someone else said, "That's 'cause it's real" -- while Obama's voice punched and pummeled as though he had the power to animate Caesar Rodney's statue with the front hooves of his horse dashing in the air, fired up, ready to go.