If Grand Rapids, Mich., were Jerusalem (and some have suggested it's not far off), its temple would be Van Andel Arena. The 12,000-seat venue is named for the late Amway co-founder and Republican heavyweight Jay Van Andel and it is home to all manner of beasts and beauties-- hosting hockey Griffins and football Rampagers as well as national minstrels Carrie Underwood, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty.
Last night, Barack Obama rocked the house in both categories, dazzling the crowd with an ambitious preview of the general election campaign and delivering what may be the critical knockout punch to the dizzied Clinton camp in the form of a John Edwards endorsement.
The beauty (and political genius) of the event lay, appropriately enough, in its sheer audacity. Grand Rapids, but more importantly, West Michigan, is not historically friendly to Democrats. DeVos, Van Andel, and Secchia-- these conservative icons have worked (and spent) tirelessly to earn the region its reputation as a leading GOP and evangelical stronghold in an otherwise consistently bluish-purple state.
Monday's announcement, then, that the Obama campaign had rented out "the temple" for the Wednesday evening rally was both audacious and mysterious. How would the young, idealistic Democrat survive in the lions' den?
Obama, freshly reinforced by Edwards, delivered his answer to an electric, capacity crowd:
"This isn't just the America of yesterday," he said, "this is the America of tomorrow...This is our time to answer the call that so many generations have answered before.
"Hope is spreading all across America," he said, bringing the crowd to its feet.
As Ted Roelofs of the Grand Rapids Press noted, "The first public appearance of Barack Obama in West Michigan was one reason for partisans to cheer: Their man was ready to do battle in the heart of GOP country."
Edwards' surprise appearance alongside Obama -- deftly orchestrated just in time for the evening news cycle -- bolstered that sentiment. In his fifteen-minute introductory remarks, Edwards injected the Obama campaign with a much-needed (and doubtlessly much appreciated) dose of "ordinary folk" populism.
"Democratic voters have made their choice and so have I... Join me in helping send Barack Obama to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," said Edwards to thunderous applause, clearly glowing to be back in the bright lights.
Obama later told the press that Edwards is "somebody who I greatly respect and to have his endorsement I think will help consolidate the party around a real change agenda."
The headline of Roelof's Press piece? "Edwards endorsement of Obama in Grand Rapids could be final blow to Clinton."
Despite Tuesday's 40-point loss to Clinton in West Virginia, that certainly seems to be the way Obama sees it. True to post-North Carolina campaign strategy, Tuesday's script at times played like a eulogy, referencing a primary campaign in the past tense and repeatedly praising and then quickly skipping over Clinton.
"That was the central tenet of this campaign," said Obama at one point in reference to his "one America" theme.
"This campaign is not about me, it's not about John [Edwards], it's not about Hillary, it's not about John McCain. This campaign's about you."
His Republican adversary didn't get off that easy, however, with Obama continuing to challenge McCain on the point of mental fortitude, reasserting a now famous line: "Since this war in Iraq started, we have lost our bearings."
"Eight more years of you're-on-your-own politics... that is the politics of the past and we are the politics of the future." John McCain, said Obama, promises a "can't-do-won't-do-won't-even-try kind of politics."
Obama's visit to Grand Rapids, then, was as much a calculated slice for the Clinton jugular as it was a prophetic warning to the Republican establishment:
"We are going to compete everywhere," the senator told reporters. "That's my theory of this election, and that's how we have gotten where we have gotten.
Obama's message in Grand Rapids resonated throughout the evening: this is my house, too, and the tables have turned. "It turns out when you show up, people respond."
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