Today's Big Damn Deal in the eons-long presidential campaign -- that is finally, after lo these many months, reaching its conclusion -- took place in Sunrise, Fla., at the Bank Atlantic Center, home to the Florida Panthers, the most unlikely team in the NHL. (I mean, seriously -- Florida and hockey? Really?) Anyway, as I turned off Sunrise Boulevard onto Flamingo Road -- (I know, how Florida are these streets?) -- a small plane flew overhead dragging a banner that read, "Don't spread MY wealth! Vote McCain-Palin." A small group of McCain enthusiasts held signs on the street corner, token resistance against the rising tide.
A line wound from the entrance of the arena, snaking through the parking lot, impossibly long. In my previous journalistic incarnation, I wrote a music column here in South Florida for four years. I have been to the Bank Atlantic Center to cover more acts than I can remember, including heavy hitters like Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen. I have never seen anything like that line. But despite the crazy length of the queue, people seemed to be in high spirits.
Happily for me, as a member of the Fourth Estate, I skipped past those lines and slipped into a side door where the local press went through security and then onto the arena floor. One of the first faces I saw was that of Bobby Gravitz, the campaign's South Florida Communications Director. He has been with the campaign since the snows of Iowa almost two years ago. Tonight, he seemed positively buoyant. "You know, the last five minutes here are going to be broadcast live at the end of the half hour?" he asked me. I had not heard that, and I made a mental note to stay behind the cameras at the tumultuous moment, given that I have a bad phobia of being in the background of other people's videos and photos. Long story.
The Florida Democratic political elite were out in force. As I stepped back outside for a cigarette, I passed by former Florida governor and senator Bob Graham, then reached outdoors just in time to pass by Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and her family. The place had mostly filled up by 5:45 p.m., except for the upper deck, which held just a few people.
The traveling press arrived by 6:15 p.m. CNN's Candy Crowley leaned down near a young black boy, who wore a suit, carried press credentials, boasted a cameraman, and was interviewing anyone with a recognizable face. By 6:40 p.m., the early speakers had begun with an invocation by Rabbi Sheldon Harr, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of the national anthem, pitches on early voting and volunteering, and speeches by Sen. Bill Nelson and Graham, who was introduced as former Florida governor and currentsenator Bob Graham. Somewhere, Mel Martinez's ears were ringing. By 7:30 p.m., the rest of the big guns in the traveling press poured in en masse, Richard Wolffe leading the way.
Joe Biden hit the stage at 7:45 p.m. By this point, Bank Atlantic Center was filled its capacity of about 20,000 people. The cheering was deafening. Biden drew uproarious applause with his insistence that "This election is about you... Now is the time to choose." Biden got a little wonky, breaking down a potential Obama administration's two main goals as, first, restoring the middle class, noting "If we can help Wall Street, we can help Sunrise Boulevard." The local crowd roared its approval, and it was at least commendable that Biden added a local touch to the ubiquitous Wall Street-Main Street comparison. Second, Biden said that the Obama administration would regain American's respect in the world by ending the war in Iraq. It was good to hear a return to the anti-war demands that first raised Obama to the heights upon which he now finds himself. After a 10 minute speech, Biden introduced "the next president of the United States, Barack Obama."
To use the most overused adjective in music journalism, the crowd's response was positively Beatles-esque. "Sunrise, I got two words for you," Obama intoned. "Six days." Huge uproar. Screams. Beating of breasts. Weeping. A thousand camera flashing at once. And Obama can do that just by saying, "six days." Crazy. This is the third time I've seen the man live, but certainly the largest crowd in which I've seen him, and the screams are unreal. They make a rock concert look like an intimate cocktail party.
I stood between Obama and a screen on which the words of the speech rolled by, and it was interesting to see how what he said varied from the actual words. His speech was close to the actual words on the teleprompter, but for a few rhetorical flourishes, so that a hailing of American ingenuity that read "Some of the best ideas have come from our small businesses and our research facilities" came out of Obama's mouth, "Some of the best ideas have come from our small businesses , research facilities, the back of somebody's garage."
He addressed the recent critiques of his economic plan by the McCain camp -- that they're socialistic -- by dismissing them out of hand. "John McCain calls [my economic plan] socialism. I call it opportunity," Obama declared. "There's nothing more American than that." When the speech went live, Obama cannily mentioned Denver, Cincinnati and Fort Lauderdale (Colorado, Ohio and Florida, of course) in the speech.
After it was all over, Obama flashed the Hawaiian "hang loose" sign at someone in the front rows. Coming soon to the conservative blogosphere: "Breaking! Obama flashes secret Satanist hand signal to Florida audience."