Festival of democracy comes to Maryland

February 17, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

The crowd declared itself "fired up and ready to go," ready for the choreographed call-and-response prologue. An entire section of blue and white Obama placards, arranged in easy camera view, bounced in rhythm. An elegant handmade sign spelled the candidate's last name, beginning with the familiar orange Orioles' O.

When the presidential campaign came to town last week, Marylanders had an experience usually denied them by the scheduling of primaries and the decisions of campaign strategists.

Until this year, the state was so late in the election season that the outcome was rarely in doubt. Or Maryland wasn't big enough to warrant more than the so-called tarmac visit at airports.

Not so this year. We were "relevant," to borrow the descriptive term du jour. Suddenly, we were part of the great festival of democracy. Candidates wanted our votes and asked for them in person.

There was a candidate from almost every point on the ideological and geographic compass: Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

Senators Clinton and Obama came with the additional glamour of being potential firsts: first female or first black president. Marylanders turned out for the contenders, voting first with their feet: 30,000 of them rallying behind Mr. Obama in College Park and later at the arena in downtown Baltimore.

Parents - with children in carriages, in backpacks or running on ahead - came for a glimpse of the candidate.

Terence Sawyer, an Obama fan from Towson, said he wanted his three sons "to see what it feels like when a community gets genuinely excited about a candidate." The 37-year-old white lawyer said it wasn't about race or gender.

"It's about vision and leadership," he said.

What happened in Maryland was almost a throwback to the time when candidates whistle-stopped through the country, speaking from the rear of campaign trains. Jet planes allow campaigns to cover more ground - but also separate the candidates from the voters. An arena closes the gap somewhat.

Seventh District Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, introducing the candidate, said Maryland's relevant moment had become more than a campaign. It was, he said - his voice rising above the roaring crowd - a "movement."

The race itself remained close, notwithstanding partisan claims. Even in the crowd drawn by the senator from Illinois, there were clear traces of voters still making up their minds.

"It's been a whole unique experience, something completely different," said Richard Lieberman of Rodgers Forge, who was there with his wife, Tracy, and their four children. He noted that commentators had declared that the nominees would be Senator Clinton and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

"People are not voting for whom they were told to vote [for]," he said.

In the background, the heavily managed event kept the crowd buzzing as the candidate approached. The singer Neil Diamond, via the hall's sound system, urged the crowd to "hang on to a dream." A 14-year-old black violinist, Josh Coyne, dazzled the crowd with his virtuosity.

The Liebermans, both of whom are health care consultants, say they have moved back and forth in their thinking about whom to vote for.

Was Mr. Lieberman at all concerned about the slick, show-biz aspect of the event?

"It's what you do when you go on a job interview," he said. "It's all about image. Image gets you in the door, even if you're running for dog catcher. After that, you still have to catch dogs."

Curtis S. Anderson, a black member of the House of Delegates from Baltimore, said his mother had taken him to see John F. Kennedy when he was growing up. Something was in the air then. She wanted her son to be part of it.

He took his two sons to South Carolina to campaign for Senator Obama. The idea that race had been muted up to now had him pinching himself.

"He's an African-American. It's a fact. But the idea that white America has ignored it - that's the history," he said.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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