From The International Herald Tribune:
Obama leaves the stage to mix with his skeptics
By Jeff Zeleny
Friday, May 2, 2008
COLUMBIA CITY, Indiana: There was no music, no sea of screaming admirers and only a light dabble of applause when Senator Barack Obama walked across the green carpet of the Oak Pointe retirement center here on Thursday at his first campaign stop of the day.
For a presidential candidate, particularly one in the throes of a rigorous political and personal test, such a dearth of energy could be a worrisome sign. For Obama, it was all part of the new script.
"What I want to do is spend more time listening than talking," Obama told a small clutch of Indiana voters. "It's been wonderful to see these big crowds, but the problem is you don't really learn much when you're listening to yourself talk."
As he tries to navigate beyond one of his roughest patches in the long Democratic nominating fight, Obama did not retreat to the comforts of super-size rallies that have defined his presidential bid, with their lofty oratory.
Those events, advisers say, do not convert enough skeptics, which Obama must do if he is to expand his support in Indiana and beyond, particularly after the controversy stirred by the incendiary remarks of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.
So, five days before facing Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the next round of Democratic primaries, Obama awoke on Thursday intent on tackling a broader challenge waiting in the wings: assuring Indiana voters that he believes in their same values and shares their patriotism.
As he traveled by bus across northern Indiana, from Columbia City to South Bend and North Liberty to Union Mills, Obama's appearances resembled the early days of a campaign for the White House, unfolding throughout the day as a rolling introductory tour, absent much presidential glamour.
The city librarian delivered a glowing introduction of Obama at the assisted living center here. Later, a farmer offered an endorsement before the senator met voters at the Dairy Beef Building at the county fairgrounds. By evening, he loosened his tie and sat down at a picnic table as he made small talk with a family on an Indiana farm.
For days, the controversy surrounding Wright had threatened to overtake Obama's message in the critical closing days of the Indiana and North Carolina primary campaigns.
Frustrated by the attention the story had received from the news media and pained by being forced to denounce Wright publicly, Obama appeared tired, worn and rambling during a late-night appearance on Wednesday in Bloomington.
But if presidential campaigns are built upon stagecraft and images, this is the picture his strategists wanted to project on Thursday: He was talking, listening and, they hoped, connecting with older, white residents of Indiana, the kind of voters he struggled to win over in Pennsylvania.
At the Oak Pointe center, he was intent on shaking hands with each of the 52 residents seated in easy chairs and wheelchairs and on sofas. A few hours later, he rolled up his sleeves and drank a can of Budweiser as he talked with a group of men at a VFW club.
Neither the candidate nor his advisers are certain how the storm surrounding his relationship with Wright will play out among voters here or in the states remaining in the final month of the Democratic primary calendar. But as the campaign enters its 16th month, Obama is suddenly redoubling his efforts to introduce himself and answer questions that have settled into the political narrative: Who is he? Is he like us?
"You want to know my values?" Obama asked a group of voters on a recent evening. "Let me tell you about my family."
So he tells most audiences now the story of his Kansas-born grandparents, particularly that of his grandfather, who fought in World War II and is buried in Punchbowl Cemetery in Hawaii. His mother a single mother saw to it that he got the best education. It is, he concludes, a living example of the American dream.
Although Obama's presidential candidacy sprang from his autobiography, his story is far less concrete. If Senator John McCain is known as a war hero, a maverick, a temperamental warrior, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is known as a smart political figure, toughened by years of crisis, Obama remains unformed.
"Because we've been so successful, that's why my opponents have been trying to make this election about me lately," Obama said, to a large crowd on Wednesday evening in Bloomington. " 'We're not sure he shares our values. We haven't seen him wear a flag pin lately. He's got a funny name. He says he's Christian, but we don't know. His former pastor said some terrible things and so, can we really trust this guy?' "
In near unison, the audience replied, "Yes!"
Before asking for their votes, Obama has started to conclude nearly every one of his campaign events with a forceful recitation of his values. He blames his rivals for stirring up questions about his background, saying, "They can't win on the ideas, they can't win on the issues."
But as Obama heard for himself, those concerns are on people's minds. At a campaign stop outside South Bend, a man asked a question about trade and before he finished, he added: "I've been reading on the Internet that you believe as an American we should not have to pledge allegiance to the flag. Is that true?"
"It is not. That is completely bogus," Obama replied tersely. "These e-mails have been sent around in each state I'm about to go into. It's a smear campaign they've been running since the beginning of the campaign. I lead the Pledge of Allegiance when I'm presiding in the Senate, so you can catch it on videotape."
To lighten the day, Obama also turned to humor. A crew from "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central followed him around Indiana. He delivered the Top 10 list on "Late Show with David Letterman." He did not mention Wright but did poke fun at himself on No. 6, saying: "Earlier today, I bowled a 39," a reference to his actual score of 37 he bowled last month in Pennsylvania.
But the laughter belied a trying week. Although angered by the distraction and feeling betrayed by Wright Obama maintained a calm sense of certainty, associates said, and urged his campaign aides to focus on the race.
At four campaign events, the subject of Wright was not broached publicly on Thursday. It was, though, on the minds of several voters who filled his small audiences.
Betty McManama, an 87-year-old resident of the retirement center, has carefully followed the Democratic primary. She disagreed strongly with Wright's remarks about the United States government, but she said she did not believe the senator should be punished for them. She said she felt that questions of religion, patriotism and values were an excuse.
"I think there's a certain percentage of people who won't vote for him because he's black, and I think that's a shame," said McManama, who started the day on Thursday not sure which Democratic candidate to support. But after meeting Obama, she said: "I'm leaning toward him. How could you not?"