Ursuline Purnell strode into the polling place at Baltimore's Gwynns Falls Elementary School, a Barack Obama T-shirt tucked beneath her overcoat and an Obama pin placed proudly on her lapel.
She had lots of company. At the two polling sites that shared the school gym, an informal survey of more than a dozen voters and a handful of poll workers found Obama supporters at every turn. Some spoke of the historic opportunity to elect an African-American to the presidency. Others shared their hope of making a difference in a fiercely contested Democratic nominating contest.
But, for 84-year-old Purnell, Obama was simply the most qualified candidate.
"I'm voting for him not because he's a black man, but because he's brilliant," said Purnell, who spent seven hours Monday at Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena for a glimpse at the Illinois senator for a rally that drew more than 10,000 frenzied supporters. "It was exciting. They brought all the schoolchildren in there. There was just this energy."
Turnout was brisk by midmorning as seniors with walkers, parents with toddlers and a smattering of teen voters arrived amid frigid temperatures and snow flurries. Like most city voters, nearly all were Democrats. By 4 p.m., chief Republican judge Natalie Jones had checked in just three Republicans at the polling place.
"I'm one of the only ones," she said. "But I guess I've gotten used to it."
Poll workers said they were warned by election officials to prepare for an onslaught of voters at these precincts, near Lake Ashburton in West Baltimore.
Patricia Banks, a provisional judge, said it would be hard for Baltimoreans to escape the energy generated by this year's primary.
"This is the most exciting one for me," she said. "People are hearing about this in their neighborhood, in their churches. It's the talk of the town."
Beverly Henderson, 82, Democratic judge and 25-year veteran of Gwynns Falls precinct work, spent the morning waving at old friends and keeping an eye out for young voters.
"They come in the door and say, `Oh, there she is, we're in the right place,'" Henderson said of her fame in the precincts. "These people are devoted. And the young people, I get so happy to see them."
Elections make her giddy in general, and yesterday's was significant. "We've never had a black president, we've never had a woman," she said. "And both candidates are very well liked. I don't even know who I'm going to vote for yet."
Brian Cromwell, 19, said the excitement of this year's campaign moved him to cast his very first ballot. Obama, he said, has the right take on the issues that matter most: the Iraq war, the economy and President Bush's tax cuts. Cromwell said he has never paid this much attention to politics and didn't vote in last year's mayor's race because he did not consider himself informed.
"I think I speak for a lot of voters when I say I didn't keep up with the issues," said Cromwell, a first-year computer science student at Baltimore City Community College. "So I admit, it was kind of intimidating."
This year is different. Cromwell said he was awakened to the needs in Baltimore and nationwide, especially in education reform.
"I went to Walbrook [High School] right up the street, and there were students who studied and students who didn't and teachers who sometimes just didn't care. It's not right," he said. "The candidates are talking about change in ways we haven't heard before. I think a lot of people have become more informed."
Die-hard Obama supporters such as Woody and Karen Jackson had their minds made up long ago. When asked why they support the Illinois senator, they uttered his mantra: change.
"When I turn on the TV and I see who is leading our country, it frightens me," said Karen Jackson, 55. "There is a lot of suffering going on in this country, especially in Baltimore."
Obama is an "astute gentleman" with the wherewithal to end the war, said Woody Jackson, 56, a Vietnam veteran who works for an agency that helps homeless vets find jobs. "This country has got to stop thinking war all the time. We need to start helping people."
He bristled at the mention of Obama's opponent in the primaries, Sen. Hillary Clinton.
"When her husband was in office, things were far from perfect," he said. "A lot of things, the problems we have now, started under him. If we supposedly had such a strong economy, why did it fall so fast?"
Nickol Weaver is irked by the Clinton-haters. The 35-year-old city social worker longs for a return of the Clintons and said she admires Hillary Clinton's policies on the economy and health care.
"Maybe they are just intimidated by a strong female who is very opinionated," she said of Clinton's critics. "It bothers me. I mean, what's wrong with universal health care?"
Weaver said she is worried, however, that Obama could take the nomination, and she gets little empathy in her household. When asked whom he would vote for, her 9-year-old son Earl Weaver Jr. stared at his mother, then said sheepishly: "Obama."