Rally: Va. Beach Convention Center, Feb. 10th

Ken Vogel at Politico insists that Hillary really needs a win in Virginia despite the sixteen point deficit that polls are showing here.  That is more than likely true, and I’ll be honest a Hillary Clinton win, even by a narrow margin, would be a serious setback to the momentum that Obama continues to build.

Still, I think that might be a little difficult to pull off.

The Virginia Beach Convention Center is a massive complex that looks strangely like a futuristic top secret military experimental hangar that sits right at the end of 264.  The beach front is only maybe a ten to fifteen minute walk away, and high reaching hotel resorts stretch up and etch a unique skyline cast in shades of purples and aqua-marine.  Surf shops, karaoke bars and seafood restraunts are packed in tight amongst the palm trees and miniature golf courses, and it’s not uncommon to see kids ambling their way to the beach in bikinis and low riding shorts, sometimes even in the winter on those days where the wind behaves and the sun comes out.

Last night was not one of those occurrences, however; for as the temperature remained decent enough, the wind was gusting too hard to truly enjoy the beach.

That wind did not, however, stop for one instance those heading out to the Convention Center that evening, and as I reached the end of 264 at around 5:15, I hit some steep traffic.

Despite taking nearly a half an hour just to get off the freeway, parking was miraculously easy to find.  Granted where I parked probably wasn’t legal.  It had been three years since I saw Obama speak in person, and already the disparities between now and 2005 were plainly visible.  Back then it was a high school gymnasium, and people walked pretty much unabated in through the doors.  Now we’re talking about one of the larger venues in the Hampton Roads area, and the line was unimaginable.

To give you an idea, the parking lot for the Convention Center is vast, taking up probably around six or seven city blocks.  This line cut through the parking lot, took at least one major detour into the lot and a u-turn back towards the building (alone a block down and a block back), and finally snaking its way to the neighboring hotel complex.  And this was almost two hours before the event was supposed to start.

It was good that I got there that early, too, as I stood in that line for about an hour and a half in the increasingly colder wind.  But it wasn’t as miserable as you would think for the crowd was very energetic, and it was easy to make new friends in that crowd.

I talked with the people around me and heard their stories.  Kevin had just recently moved to the area to work in a Library in Norfolk.  A quiet young guy with a cleanly shaven face and close cropped hair I had to warn him that he would have to grow something out if he didn’t want people coming up and asking him if he was in the military all the time.  He told me he was an Edwards supporter, but when Edwards dropped out it was a pretty simple decision who to back next, and he insisted that Obama/Edwards was the unbeatable ticket.

Then there was Bob and Susan, a couple I would say in their fifties and both independents, though Susan admitted to voting Republican more often than not.  But she, like everyone else I met last night who had a tendency to vote Republican, “just had a feeling” about Bush, and didn’t vote for the man.  Bob had told me he hadn’t been active in politics, but Obama changed all of that, and he had even donated a decent sum to the Obama campaign.

Later, while Bob was on a run to go get an extra jacket for his wife, Susan confided that she was still undecided, but her husband was very enthusiastic about Obama and she herself was very open.

Perhaps the most impressive story was that of Ian, Carla, and Megan.  These young voters had made a three hour journey out to Virginia Beach just to hear Obama speak, and as Carla explained, this was the first time they had attended a political rally live.  All so they could rush back home and get a little bit of sleep before getting up for a full day of work the next day.

I felt a little bad for them for as time continued to pass, the chances that we would make it in the doors seemed to get dimmer and dimmer.  We had made good progress, and even as we neared the convention center the line behind us only grew longer and longer, but it was beginning to look like we weren’t making enough progress.

As we waited, we continued to talk; Ian, a devout political junkie in his own right, was anxiously searching for Maine results on his internet phone, and I marvelled at the ethnic diversity of Carla’s family; the black adopted daughter of a half black, half native american mother, and half black half white father.  Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of that crowd was the sheer diversity.  Old folks were mixed in with kids who looked to be participating in their first election; people of color, white people, Latinos, Asians.  One kid sporting an impressive black mohawk stood just a few feet from a smartly dressed group of young black men in crisp suits, and interracial couples, like Carla and Ian, abounded (I apologize, for some reason, probably because I’m in one, I’ve got a soft spot for interracial couples).

Even children sporting signs in crayon on construction paper in thick parkas were everywhere.  That massive crowd outside the Convention Center struck me as a snapshot of America in all of our colors and states, representing a healthy mix not only of culture and ethnicity but of opinions and political beliefs.  There were disillusioned Republicans and tentative independents, and of course the hard core liberal Democrats.

There were even half a dozen Ron Paul supporters holding signs across the street from the front of the line and we all had a good laugh when Bob returned from his jacket expedition to report that he kindly informed them that their candidate had dropped out of the race.  Apparently they ignored him which doesn’t strike me in the least.

My new young friends had just shown their Obama T-Shirts (Ian’s was great, “Got Hope?”) to a late twenties guy sporting a giant “HOPE!  It’s what’s for dinner!” sign, when the line really started to move quickly.  We had made it all the way down a long detour when all of a sudden a police siren blared out followed by raucous cheers.  We all spun on our heels and coming up the way was a squad car followed by a black SUV with a Secret Service agent smiling in the passenger seat.  There was no way to know it, but true or false, that crowd at least believed Obama was riding in the back seat and everyone around me erupted into wild cheer.

A few minutes later, the line broke.

I can’t remember who noticed first.  Ian?  Carla?  Megan?  Bob?  All I know is we turned and all of a sudden the line had dissolved and people were storming the doors in a mob, and in the next moment, we were running too.  I was sort of amazed that people weren’t trampled in that mad dash as I rode on Ian, Carla, and Megan’s coat tails, letting Ian blaze a trail that I easily followed, and in a blur of cheers and stomping feet the next thing I knew we were standing beneath a giant American flag in an enormous venue that was filling up fast.

“Signed, Sealed, Delivered” was blaring through the stadium speakers, and even still it was hard to hear over the excited chatter of thousands of people.

For indeed, that was the case.  We hadn’t long to wait before someone (I couldn’t catch a name over the din) announced that this was the biggest political event in Virginia Beach history.  A well dressed middle aged women would confirm to me a few minutes later that the estimated crowd was 20,000 people strong.  Looking behind me over the sea of faces packed in like sardines, that figure was not hard to believe.

It was there, listening to the various songs of the Obama campaign, that Ian found out Obama won Maine.  All of a sudden our little group started shouting it out, only to be looked upon with confused faces.  The same woman who told me about the size of the audience leaned over to me and said, “I knew that an hour ago.”

Once inside we still waited for a half an hour where our converstations took us from the amazement that there were food and drink vendors perched at the ages of the mob like hot dog peddlers at a ball game, to the intricacies of a campaign, all of which interrupted periodically by the now familiar chants of “O-ba-ma” and “Yes we can!”

The atmosphere was incredible; everyone was friends in that place, and the excitement was palpable.  You read and hear in the news people refer to Obama as a “rockstar”, but last night proved why.  You wouldn’t think all those people were gathered their just to hear a speech, you couldn’t imagine people being that excited just to see a politician.  Later, at home, watching the local news they reported that people were waiting outside the Convention Center as early as 8:30 in the morning and this for an event that didn’t even actually start until around 8:30 at night.  Traffic was backed up to Lynnhaven, and only when I found that out did I count myself lucky for getting there as early as I did.

We jockeyed for position, my new companions unfortunately short and having a hard time seeing over the crowd.  Eventually Carla hoisted Megan on her shoulders (“I used to be a cheerleader…”) only to put her back down on several occasions due to false alarms.

But then it began.  First came a life long Republican woman whom I never heard of before, but pressed on through the increasingly anxious crowd, and spoke eloquently of how Obama is what America needed now.  She almost got booed off the stage, however, when she made to introduce someone other than Obama, but when she got the name Tim Kaine out, the crowd erupted.

Kaine’s incredibly popular, and in his speech last night he reminded everyone there why Chris Cillizza puts him on the short list for Obama’s running mates.  His stump speech last night, reminded me an awful lot of his “I got a good news story to tell,” stump speech from back in 05, only this time it was, “I had a feeling”.

It was a rousing speech that kept people on their tip toes and kept people chanting that now famous line, “Yes We Can”, and I stopped to think, not for the first time, that Obama/Kaine would be damn near impossible to stop.  But then, as Kaine finished his speech, U2’s “City of Blinding Lights” played, and as Ian and Carla informed me, that was Obama’s cue.

Now, I’ve been to rock concerts, and I’ve been to WWF shows live.  I know what a good pop sounds like, and the burst of cheers that emanated the moment Barack Obama entered the room topped them all.  Keep in mind, I’ve seen Obama speak live before, I’ve covered the primaries close enough to where I can almost recite a lot of his speeches by memory.  I’m largely desensitized to most of this stuff at this point, but I had to admit that I had gotten the old chills back.  The energy in the room was that powerful.

The speech itself was something I found interesting.  This was not one of Obama’s “poetic” speeches.  This was a policy wonk speech, one that picked its way carefully through a fairly detailed account of Obama’s platform, from what he wants to do with his military (and if you want a good pop in Hampton Roads you better respect the military), to health care, to education.  It was on this last point where he really seemed to get the most applause.

But this is what is so interesting about Obama, he can take a policy speech and turn it into poetry.  He can talk about the more mundane points of energy policy and still get your pulse rate up, and that’s what he did last night.  He mixed the wonk talk with the levity that highlights his charm (“My cousin Dick Cheney will not be on the ticket… you know, you do these geneology surveys, and you hope you get someone cool…  I got Dick Cheney”), there are the hints of populism, (“No more Scooter Libby justice, Brownie incompetence, and Karl Rove politics”), and the raw inspiration that has really driven much of Obama’s campaign.

What really impressed upon me, though, was this was not so much a stump speech as it was a final argument, as though he knew there were a decent amount of undecideds and independents he had still to convince.  He wasn’t trying to dazzle them with his lofty speech, he was trying to convince them with what he plans on doing and how he plans on doing it.  Added to this was the electability argument, one that I believe is a smart ploy for him to engage in, and he earned much applause when he answered Hillary Clinton’s charge by name that he wasn’t ready to take on the Republican attack machine.  “I’m skinny, but I’m tough.”

He didn’t speak any of his catch phrases last night, and despite this, the end of his speech was inaudible, drowned out by thousands of people chanting his name and crowding the rope line in the hopes of shaking his hand.

I wasn’t one of them–I had to get back into my role of jaded amateur political journalist, and as I walked back to my car I could sympathize with reporters who walk away from Obama events utterly dazzled.  But as I pointed my Wolfsburg down the narrow country roads home in order to avoid the massive freeway traffic I wasn’t anxious to contend with, I also knew something else.

Virginia was fired up and ready to go.

3 Responses to “Rally: Va. Beach Convention Center, Feb. 10th”

  1. Kathy from PA says:

    Reality check. Paul is NOT out of the race.

  2. terry says:

    Yes, that’s exactly how it was in Hartford. You put it into words so much better than I could.

  3. Thank you so much Terry.

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