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The Obama Nation

February 14, 2008

Washington DC – 17,500 people lined up outside the Comcast Center of the University of Maryland since the early morning hours on Monday, one of the coldest days of the year in College Park, a suburb of Washington DC. They brought foldable chairs, food and decks of cards, but they weren’t going to miss Democratic candidate Barack Obama speaking on the eve of the so-called Potomac Primary, when voters in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia went to the polls.

barackobamacampaignevent“This election is about a vision,” Shawn told me. He was the first one to arrive at the gates just past 5 am. While he spoke, he was wrapped in a few layers of thick blankets to try defeating the freeze. “Barack Obama is a very inspiring leader that can take this country in a new direction,” the student in Economics and Anthropology said.

Joyce, an African-American government worker in her mid-fifties, confessed to have fallen for Barack Obama the day he spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. On Monday, Joyce queued up since 6 am at the doors of the Comcast Center, wearing a bulky, carroty winter coat, wide sunglasses and Obama buttons pinned all around a black woolen hat. “I don’t like her attitude,” she told me referring to Senator Hillary Clinton, “she speaks of the election like it’s her birthright.”

As every prediction leading up to Tuesday’s primary projected, the District metropolitan area turned out to be Barack Obama’s joyceprivate backyard. The Senator from Illinois swept through the Chesapeake Bay with hefty margins, winning DC 75% to 24% against Clinton. After all, the demographics of the US capital are precisely those where Mr. Obama has the strongest showing; a large African-American population mixed with the affluent, highly educated white democrats.

More surprisingly, the mid-Atlantic vote on Tuesday showed that Mr. Obama is slowly winning the favor of the rest of the democratic electorate, reaching out to all demographics, including those – white women and lower income democrats – that have so far stuck to Hillary Clinton’s side.

Sylvia and Bella fit perfectly the profile of the typical Clinton’s supporter. They are middle-aged white women who work in the public school system in Maryland. Nevertheless they too woke up before sunrise to go listen to Barack Obama on Monday. “He can be a fresh start for the US,” Bella said. “I’m done with the Bush-Clinton-Bush pattern,” echoed Sylvia.

change-wecanbelieveinOn Primary-day I visited a few different polling places inside the Beltway where people were flocking to throughout the day despite the below-zero temperatures, one of the many signs of the higher-than-usual excitement with which politics-possessed Washington DC was bustling. Thanks to an incredibly tight race on the democratic side this year, this is the first time that anyone paid any attention to the vote in the nation’s capital and its surrounding suburbs and, as Charles Babington of the Associated Press pointedly wrote last week, people in DC finally had “a rare opportunity to help decide a presidential election rather than just obsess about it.”

The tour I took on Tuesday, although not statistically representative in itself, showed similar trends to the ones highlighted by the results of the vote in Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC, and moods comparable to those I witnessed among the tail of people lined up in College Park on Monday, fans captured by Mr. Obama’s rockstar-like appeal and charming oratory. smiling

“It’s time for change,” an older African-American woman told me. The Obama campaign hired buses to drive lower income residents to the polling places on Tuesday, and it was stepping onto one of them that I met her. She gave me her home address but refused to identify herself by name. She also showed absolutely no quandary in voting against a female candidate; “I don’t think a woman should run the country,” she said. “We’ve gotten smarter but not that smart.”

Despite the mounting wave of enthusiasm, Barack Obama still has many phone-calls to make and doors to knock on if he wants to bite into Hillary Clinton’s traditional base of support and winning final approval especially from Latinos, who were only a minor percentage of the voters in the Potomac Primary. Jose’ is registered in Maryland and he would only vote later, he told me while we were talking on a sidewalk of Northwest DC. He will cast his ballot for Clinton, or “Miss Hillary,” as he called her. “Me gusta mucho,” Jose’ said in Spanish.

“They don’t know yet who Obama is,” a Latino union organizer from East Los Angeles told me later Tuesday night at an event held by the Obama campaign in downtown Washington. “It seems that the better Latinos know him, the more they like him,” he said as supporters of all ages and ethnic make-ups were gathering in the blue, red and white balloons-filled ballroom of the Madison Hotel. Wine glasses in hand, people cheered at the incoming returns of the day’s vote on big screen TV and at DC Mayor Adrian Fenty’s live appearance and speech in support of Mr. Obama.

Name recognition is a serious challenge that Barack Obama faces in the Latino community, which has a longstanding history with the Clinton family and great apprgirlwithredhotie1eciation for the former first-lady, an icon of the glorious 1990s when the benefits of the economic boom extended beyond white Americans well into their own communities. Matilde is a Latino woman who works in a hair-salon in Dupont Circle, one of the more upscale neighborhoods in Washington DC. “I haven’t decided yet,” she told me late last week when I asked her who she would vote for. “I like Hillary. I also like the other guy though. My son wants me to vote for him. But what’s his name?” she remarked.

The Latino vote will remain a key issue until the nomination is decided and Hillary Clinton’s most important asset. Barack Obama is expected to end the month of February on an upswing, having won the last eight consecutive contests and being projected to succeed in next week’s vote in Wisconsin and Hawaii. But when delegate-rich Ohio and Texas go to the polls on March 4th, he will have to prove that he can appeal to the more diverse population of the larger states (so far Hillary Clinton has won almost all of them, including California, Nhand-shakingew Jersey and New York) and that he has found the way in with Latino voters, particularly in Texas, if he wants to grab the bigger share of the 370 delegates at stake that day.

On the Republican side, John McCain came increasingly closer to sealing the nomination on Tuesday, winning the vote all across Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, and although the most socially conservative wing of the GOP voters still clung to Mike Huckabee, especially in Virginia.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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