Candidate Obama plays to young crowd

Prince George's stop draws college students

October 11, 2007|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN REPORTER

Iowa and New Hampshire dominate the schedules of presidential candidates these days, but voters in states that don't vote early -- such as Maryland -- want some attention, too.

That's why supporters of Barack Obama insisted that the Illinois senator make a stop in Prince George's County yesterday. The campaign obliged, making an evening rally and fundraiser at a community college the first major election-season event in a state considered more valuable for its campaign donations than its delegates or strategic spot in the primary calendar.

About 1,500 people, many of them college students, streamed into a Prince George's Community College parking lot to hear Obama deliver a stump speech thick with anti-Bush rhetoric.

"People are yearning for justice," said Obama, who had spent most of the day in New Hampshire. "They are hungry for change."

In the heart of one of the wealthiest African-American communities in the nation, Obama attracted a diverse crowd that greeted with relish his call for a new energy policy and an end to the Iraq war.

"We've got white people, we've got black people," said Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a co-chairman of Obama's state campaign, looking out at the audience. "We've got Muslims; we've got Jews."

What remains unclear is whether the campaign has enough votes. The most recent polling shows that Maryland mirrors national surveys, with New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton holding a double-digit lead. Voters will cast ballots here Feb. 12, a week after the Super Tuesday primaries that many observers say could decide the nomination.

To build support, the Obama campaign is organizing a series of events like last night's rally, low-cost fundraisers designed to attract and mobilize younger voters. College students with identification got in last night for $15.

"The overall goal is the opportunity to allow people to see Senator Obama," said Jennifer Psaki, a spokeswoman for the campaign.

The sophistication of the Obama campaign was on display at the table where volunteers were sold $20 T-shirts and $3 buttons as if at a rock concert. A shirt with Obama's face sold out; "ObamaMama" and "Got Hope?" varieties were also popular.

Purchasers had to fill out a donation form to buy a shirt, ensuring that the campaign was in compliance with finance laws -- but also providing names, e-mail addresses and telephone numbers for follow-ups.

Several of the students in attendance said that while they were inclined to support Obama, they came with open minds.

"He's definitely appealing to college students. He's doing things to reach us, and that's appreciated," said Trisha Chakraborty, 18, a freshman at the Johns Hopkins University who drove 40 miles south with several classmates.

"I'm looking for someone fresh and new, who's not jaded by the process," she said.

Obama addressed that theme during a 38-minute speech that began as the sun was setting, noting concerns that as a 45-year-old, first-term senator, he might lack the experience to be president.

"A long resume doesn't guarantee good judgment," said Obama, referring to military decisions of Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Andrew Frett, 18, who drove 2 1/2 hours from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, called Obama's speech "profound."

But the senator missed an opportunity to fire up younger audience members by talking about how to make a college education more affordable, he said.

"He could have talked about that more," Frett said.

The Obama campaign would not provide an estimate of the amount of money raised last night. After the outdoor rally, Obama retreated inside for a reception with wealthier donors, who paid at least $1,000 for the more intimate encounter.

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