Whiff of blood in the water, and national media gather. Monday in Wilmington, local NC reporters, a few stalwarts of the traveling press and a blogger watched Barack Obama address a town hall meeting. Tuesday in Winston-Salem and Hickory, the Obama press enclosures were A-list packed. Familiar faces were eager to see how Senator Obama would address his renewed pastor problem--which he did in a formal, i.e. flag-draped, press conference between the two Tuesday town halls. With the exception of the long-suffering and redoubtable Lee Cowan, whose fate may be to live, die and be buried on the Obama campaign trail, the Familiar Faces are the campaign grasshoppers. They jumped into North Carolina for a few hours and then quickly moved on. The "real" race, Carolinians hear, is in Indiana.
By Hickory, the third big event (four if you count morning hoops at UNC) of the Obama NC day, national interest was waning. True to form, the press read email, checked out competitors' stories online and otherwise multi-tasked while Senator Obama spoke. Nobody was much interested in what he had to say to Hickory. The press has heard the latest version of any candidate's stump speech many times--the jokes, too many times. Just for the record, Senator Obama's Hickory performance was much better than his Wilmington one. His speech was more grounded and detailed, in little things--adding "the price of a gallon of milk" to "the price of gas"--and in big--entwining his wife's life story with his own in pleading his case for love of country. In short, Obama was more forceful and passionate. Confronting his displeasure with the Reverend Wright seems to have lit a fire under the Barack ass.
Did Senator Obama know to whom he was speaking? Likely not. That's been his problem lately on the campaign trail--not knowing exactly where he was. He even made a joke about it in Hickory when he tried to recall where he had just met someone whose story he wanted to tell. "We were down in--where were we?" Quickly he came up with Winston-Salem, and everybody laughed. Monday in Wilmington, however, not only did he seem not to know Wilmington but the date and time, saying that it was "March" and "nine months to November." The fact that his audiences are largely composed of die-hard fervent loyalists usually masks this underlying dis-connection. But it's worth noting that Senator Clinton always knows exactly where she is and to whom she is speaking. On Sunday in Wilmington, for example, her opening remarks touched in quick succession on several important things about the town: the glorious setting on the Cape Fear River, its connection to the military, the upcoming commissioning of the new submarine North Carolina there next weekend, and the fact that "this country has been very good to me and to many of you," for people who are lucky enough to live in Wilmington are lucky indeed.
Hickory itself got short shrift. Indeed many of the people at the Obama town hall meeting weren't from Hickory at all. Non-Carolinians from retirement communities around Asheville had driven over. As for the Tar Heelers themselves, they came, despite gas prices, from "three counties away." It was a good audience in that it wasn't just college kids, African-Americans and upper middle class white folks. There were more than a few of those working class white people Senator Obama has been seeking, and they had interesting things to say. Howard, a house painter who has lived in Catawba County all his life, said that he supported Obama because "the American century is over, radical changes are coming and most Americans aren't prepared for the future in any way." But Senator Obama "has his finger on the pulse" of this change. Howard, like all the working class people I talked to in Hickory, is well-educated. The issue in Hickory, like elsewhere in North Carolina, is not lack of access to higher education but the quality of jobs that should ensue from such an education. As Kenneth and Gwenn ("be sure to mention our chihuahua Petey") told me, "people are finding that the college educations they gave their kids aren't worth much, and both generations here in Hickory are working at Wal-Mart." Realistically, that's the problem with a degree from a third-tier school in a part of the country where good jobs are scarce. Likely there aren't too many graduates of Duke and UNC Chapel Hill finding only Wal-Mart work.
Getting the nuances and particularities of a community just right is a problem, perhaps an inevitable one, for a candidate whose necessary life is in the campaign bubble. Not only do Senator Obama and his press entourage never really see towns like Hickory but they don't see the opposition first-hand, as well. Therefore, Senator Obama has no idea that, despite whatever her campaign may be up to, Senator Clinton hardly ever mentions him anymore. Despite his remark to Hickory that he's told his staff the campaign needs to get away from going negative, Senator Obama laid into Senator Clinton, usually in conjunction with Senator McCain, several times during the afternoon. At one point he said, "Lately the other candidates aren't talking about their ideas--they're talking about me." As far as Senator Clinton is concerned, nothing could be further from the truth. She presents more ideas on the stump than she has time for. This misrepresentation incensed a group of women friends in Hickory. They had seen Hillary Clinton several times in North Carolina and had come to hear Barack Obama before finally making up their minds. Scratch twelve votes for him.
"Don't hit on Hillary." Only the day before the Hickory event, Jean Weiss, a feisty eighty-two year-old, told Obama, when he called on her, thinking he would get a question, just that. Age admonishing youth, it was a powerful moment that the crowd much appreciated. That Senator Obama seemed to have forgotten Weiss only a day later may be a sign only of Wright-driven stress. Often on the campaign trail, however, despite his frequent comment that as President he will listen to the American people, Barack Obama seems to hear only what he wants to hear. Given the mass adulation with which he is received now, audiences don't seem to perceive Obama's selective detachment. If Obama is the next President of the United States, however, the mainstream media as well as bloggers will be busy documenting the various scenes in which this dynamic manifests itself.
Update: The YouTube videos of Jean Weiss at the Obama town hall meeting in Wilmington are only partial clips. When Senator Obama called on Mrs. Weiss for a question, she began by praising his willingness to "sit down with enemies in wisdom." Then she admonished Obama not to "hit on Hillary." Both comments received much applause. The YouTube clips take it from there. I have a complete audio of the Wilmington event, as I do for every event I cover, and I referred to it many times in writing the piece. I always quote from the audio record.