Obama-Oprah Show Plays Early States

COLUMBIA. S.C. and MANCHESTER, N.H. – In a giant Sunday afternoon rally suffused with Christian – and at times messianic – rhetoric, Barack Obama made his largest-scale pitch to black and white Democrats of South Carolina, the third and most devout presidential primary state.

The crowd filled nearly half of the 80,000-seat Williams-Brice Stadium to hear the Illinois senator and talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who campaigned with him over the weekend. His campaign said more than 29,000 people had come to the event, previewed on the front page of the region's leading newspaper, The State.

Obama and Winfrey touched on many of the same themes of change that they had dwelt on in Iowa Saturday. But Sunday's gathering was sprinkled with women in the hats they'd worn to church, and had a distinctly Christian feel.

"I give all praise and honor to God," Obama began. "Look at the day the Lord has made."



Obama's wife, Michelle, opened the rally with a description of her husband that could, at moments, have been a description of Jesus Christ.

"We need a leader who's going to touch our souls. Who's going to make us feel differently about one another. Who's going to remind us that we are one another’s keepers. That we are only as strong as the weakest among us," she said, echoing biblical passages.

Winfrey also touched on Christian themes that had not been highlighted in Iowa.

"It's amazing grace that brought me here," she began, adding that she was "stepping out of my pew" - television – to engage in politics.

It isn't enough to tell the truth, Winfrey said. "We need politicians who know how to be the truth."

Winfrey also recalled a story from "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," a 1974 film based on Ernest Gaines' 1971 novel.

In Winfrey's telling, the protagonist – an old woman who had survived slavery and the Civil War – would ask every child, "Are you the one? Are you the one?"

"I do believe I do today we have the answer to Miss Pittman's question – it's a question that the entire nation is asking – is he the one?" Winfrey said. "South Carolina – I do believe he's the one."

According to one academic discussion of the book by Christopher Mulvey, a professor at University of Winchester in the United Kingdom, the passage continues to ask whether the child is the one who will "carry part of our cross," a "messianic figure."

Winfrey brought the crowd to what was probably its emotional peak in her introduction of Obama and her discussion of her own choice to foray into politics, which had members of the audience raising their arms in "O" salutes. Along the way, she mixed in dollops of her own non-sectarian philosophizing.

"We're all here to come together – to appreciate our uniqueness and to treasure our diversity, and we're here to evolve to a higher plane," she said. "The reason I love Barack Obama is because he is an evolved leader who can bring evolved leadership to our country."

An adviser to Obama, Jim Margolis, disputed the notion that the event's rhetoric was intended as messianic.

"This is a very deeply religious state," he said. "A lot of people came here directly from church."

Though the most striking diversions from Obama's stump speech were religious, he also addressed a specific concern of the largely African-American audience.

Remembering some people “saying a black man can't win," Obama said, "I like to show them wrong. That gets me all riled up. Don't tell me I can't do something."

And the loudest cheers may have come when Obama remarked that President Bush will not be on the ballot next year.

 


Members of the crowd said they were moved by Winfrey and Obama, and also by the unusual composition – black an white, old and young – of the gathering on what was once known as the most segregated day in the South, Sunday.

"The diversity of his support – it's amazing," said Sonya Edmonds, a 38-year-old army veteran and Obama supporter who had driven down from North Carolina for the day.

The campaign made good use of the large crowd, too, gathering names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses for future contacts, and establishing an instantly certified new Guinness World Record for the "largest phone bank" when audience members were asked to call other South Carolina Democrats whose names were listed on fliers and seek their support for Obama.

UPDATE: Roughly 70,000 people saw the talk-show queen’s first foray into presidential politics over the weekend.

The hope is that Winfrey’s “authenticity,” said Obama pollster Cornell Belcher, becomes synonymous with Obama’s.

“Part of it is Oprah brings in a crowd of women, just a crowd in general, who believe in her and see authenticity in her,” Belcher said. “So many of them have given up on politics, are so cynical about politics, and they want to believe again.”

Yet despite some anecdotal evidence it remains unclear if belief in Winfrey will translate to belief in Obama.

One demonstration of this gap was found in two sisters cowering for warmth in the sub-freezing weather inside a pizzeria prior to the rally.

“We’re here for Oprah,” Nadine Pelletier said. She added that she had deep “devotion and respect” for Winfrey. Yet neither sister said she intended to support Obama on primary day.

But they may have been the exception that demonstrated the rule. At Saturday’s event in Des Moines, Iowa, at least half the tickets went to staff and volunteers, according to Obama’s campaign. Iowa precinct captains and their recruits earned many of the seats nearest to the front.

The weekend’s most lasting effect on the presidential race may have been in expanding Obama's base.

In the run-up to the South Carolina event, Obama’s campaign said that 2,307 new volunteers signed up online to assist and 68 percent were people never in prior contact with the campaign.

At the start of the event in New Hampshire, an Obama staffer asked all those attending to text the campaign on their cell phones, offering Obama t-shirts in what amounted to an attempt to expand Obama’ audience for outreach on primary day.

Winfrey was, at minimum, an ideal vehicle for this outreach. Winfrey has never endorsed a candidate before Obama. But even she, by weekend’s close, was tired of the question whether she could win votes like she wins viewers as well as readers.

“Will she be able to influence the crowds as she has influenced the books?” Winfrey said, using a nasal voice to mock pundits. She added that she knew the crowd has “some sense” and that “I know you all know the difference between book clubs” and politics.
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