Columbus, Saturday, Feb. 23 (noon): I join up with the traveling press corps for Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. It increasingly looks like Ohio’s March 4 primary will be the final battleground between him and Sen. Hillary Clinton. That battleground is cold, flat, and white. How white? On the taxi ride over to my first Obama event, I passed a Wonder Bread factory with a big sign hovering above the highway.
The event is a health care forum in a hospital. In hawking his own reforms, Obama throws a jab at Clinton. “Senator Clinton and I both have good plans,” he allows. “But Sen. Clinton had good plans back in 1993.” The panel is obviously stacked in his favor. There are only a handful of “real” people — hospital employees — in the audience. Otherwise, the event is completely staged for the press to show how thoughtful he is about health care.
“Was that out of the Karl Rove playbook?” asks one cameraman.
Akron (mid-afternoon): Obama has his stump speech down cold for this excited audience. He gets his lines off crisply and handles a mic snafu with ease. He throws in the occasional line about respecting Republicans but it’s clear he respects them in the same way that the Federation respects the Romulans: worthy adversaries and we can learn from them, certainly, but they must lose for the good of the universe. Obama strikes economic populist notes repeatedly. He aims to make Clinton suffer for her one-time support of NAFTA.
Cleveland (evening): There is big turnout at the Cleveland event. The Obama staff claim 6,000. Obama takes the stage and tells the crowd to “Give it up for SEIU” — the Service Employees International Union. “They came in tonight, three hundred strong. We got great support from the Teamsters and from transportations workers and the Change to Win Coalition. So I want to say hello to all of my brothers and sisters in the labor movement.
“It has been a year since I stood on the steps of the old state capitol. I stood there and I announced this unlikely journey to change America. So people said, ‘Barack, why are you running? Barack, you are a relatively young man? You can wait.’ Well, I am not running because I’ve held some ambition since kindergarten. I am not running because I think the White House is somehow owed to me. I am running because of the fierce urgency of now. I believe there is such a thing as being too late and that hour is almost upon us.”
He is amazingly casual when he talks. It is not just his habit of putting his hands in his pockets. It is the way he pauses when he takes a sip of water. It is in the way he stalks around the stage like Chris Rock, constantly shifting his focus to a different section of the audience so that each has a moment when he is looking at them. His voice rises but he never gets emotional.
Lorain, Sunday, Feb. 24 (mid-morning): We pull into a drywall factory in this blue collar town. Inside the warehouse, it is cold like a meat locker. A small event is staged for about three dozen hard-hat wearing employees and their families.
These are Reagan Democrats. Most are members of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. One man brought along his son, a national guardsman set to ship out to Iraq later this year. Obama stresses his economic populism in his remarks, hitting Clinton over and over again on NAFTA. The employees are not that impressed. One tells me afterward that they wanted to know what he was going to do to end the housing slump, a much more direct concern for their company.
Toledo, (afternoon): “Holy Toledo!” says Obama when he takes the stage at Toledo University and looks out on about 10,000 people. He telegraphs for this crowd how he will run against John McCain, if given the opportunity. He will run against George W. Bush. “I opposed this war in 2002. I will bring this war to an end in 2009,” he says. “John McCain is a genuine American hero but John McCain has tied himself to the failed politics of the Bush administration.”
I watch all of this from the luxury booth high above the event while eating a chicken breast stuffed with cranberry dressing. It’s part of the dinner spread the campaign put out for reporters. The Obama campaign keeps the press shut off from the candidate, mostly. He travels separately from the reporters. We watch his speeches and wait for the occasional press availability. There is virtually no chance to talk to the candidate otherwise. I never hear any reporter complain about this, maybe because the food is good.
I venture out into the audience to talk with fans. Alisha Hale, a high school student, is particularly fired up. “He is so amazing I don’t even know what to do with myself. It was beyond inspirational for me,” Hale says. “I think that we need somebody in this country to bring about the changes that he is promising, who can unify people.”
Cincinnati (evening): It is Oscar night and the Obama campaign has rented out a suite in the hotel for the press to watch the show. Several bottles of champagne are opened as well and the reporters and the campaign’s media team drain them all. Chief strategist Dave Axelrod settles in to join us. I come in fifth in the Oscar pool. I was certain There Will Be Blood would sweep.
Cincinnati, Monday, Feb. 25 (morning): The big news of the day is a photo on Drudge supposedly being circulated by the Clinton camp. It shows Obama in 2006 during a trip to Somalia wearing a turban and other local garb. The Clinton folks don’t specifically deny that a person in their camp tipped off Drudge. Spokesman David Plouffe issues an outraged press release while the campaign heads to health care forum at a local museum.
Obama surprises by talking about the long-term financial dire straights that Social Security is in. He notes that the program’s pay-as-you-go nature will be a problem when the Baby Boomers start to retire. When Bush pushed for reform in 2005 most Democrats denied that the program was in any trouble.
That he doesn’t deny the problem doesn’t mean Obama is going to do much about it. He rejects cutting benefits, raising the retirement age, or any form of privatization. His solution is to simply eliminate the cap on payroll taxes. In other words, he tells the audience that we can get the rich to pay for it. Problem solved.
Otherwise the event is like the one in Columbus. The panel is five simpatico people, all women, talking about their problems with health care. He listens attentively to their woes. The first lady, who is taking care of her mother, tears up talking about her case. Obama gets her a tissue.
“This stuff breaks me up,” he says.
Dayton (evening): After the rally, reporters pile into a plane bound for Cleveland. This time, Obama flies with us. From my seat, I see him in the forward cabin goofing around and wrapping a shawl around his head, to mock the Drudge report.
Obama comes back to talk to the reporters, greeting everybody. He is in good humor. When he shakes my hand, I mention seeing him wrap the shawl around his head. He smiles and says, “I was just keeping my head warm.”
One reporter shows him a video clip of some particularly “fired up” fans at a rally. “It’s a cult,” he says. Another asks him if he is looking forward to the debate. Obama rolls his eyes and says that at this point, 19 debates in, he could give Clinton’s answers for her and she could give his. “And so could all of you,” he adds.
I ask, “Have you come up with a response yet to the fact that your health insurance plan doesn’t cover absolutely everyone?” He smiles and says, “I like this guy. We should put him in prep.”
The cross-state flight is brief. Reporters amuse themselves by rolling oranges up and down the center aisle of the plane while it is in lift-off. The stewardess serving my section has amazing attitude. She holds up a tray of desserts for the reporters, and asks, “You guys want some of this s–t?”
Cleveland, Tuesday, Feb. 26 (morning): I arrive for the pre-debate press availability early and end up sitting next to the correspondent from the BBC. It is eerily quiet. “Like waiting for the Queen,” he says. Maybe we’ll get a wave from him, I say.
Obama arrives with Sen. Chris Dodd at his side. The ex-rival endorses Obama and urges the party to unite around him. It is a melancholy moment for him, the senator explains. “A little over a year ago, I envisioned a morning like this, but with probably a different arrangement. I fully expected Barack Obama to endorse my candidacy,” Dodd says. While endorsing Obama, Dodd talks at length about his favorite subject: Chris Dodd. He talks about his time on the campaign trail, career in the Senate, his years in the Peace Corps, and so on and so forth.
The ABC guy asks a few questions about one of Dodd’s tougher press releases regarding Obama. The reporter quotes from the 2007 release: “Sen. Obama’s assertions about foreign and military affairs have been frankly confusing and confused. He’s made threats he should not have made and made unwise categorical statements.” Dodd gropes for an answer. “Well, you can fly-speck every statement we made,” he shrugs.
Cleveland (afternoon): While waiting for the bus for the debate, I cool my heels in the lobby. A guy steps out of the elevator looking an awful lot like Jesse Jackson. It is Jesse Jackson.
Jackson walks over and talks to the New York Times and Dallas Morning News guys. I want to ask a question but have a hard time finding an opening. He talks and talks while they nod. There is no break. I never see him breathe. Finally, I get the chance. He shakes my hand and it vanishes inside his mitt. “Are you here to make an endorsement?” I ask.
“I have made an endorsement. I am supporting Barack Obama,” he tells me. He looks annoyed that I did not know this. Follow up: Why is he here? “I feel it is my duty, as a former candidate, to offer him my wisdom,” he says. He doesn’t say whether this wisdom was solicited.
We load onto the bus. A campaign staffer warns us that there will not be food at the stadium. We should load up on chips and granola bars now. This does not go over well. The New York Times guy warns, “You don’t want us covering this event with low blood sugar.” It could affect the coverage, he warns.
When we get to the arena, it turns out that there is food for the press after all. Hundreds of reporters swarm over it. The television in the press room meanwhile is turned to Entertainment Tonight. But it’s okay, as Barack Obama is on that too.
During the debate the reporters in the room act like the audience at a daytime talk show, “ohh…” and “aww…” at various times. That starts early after Clinton launches into a mini-tirade early on about getting the first question in the debate.
After the debate, I head to the so-called spin room. That’s where the campaigns send out surrogates, usually lesser elected officials, to convince reporters that their (wo)man won. Volunteers hover around these eminences, carrying signs with their name, the candidate they support, and the person’s regular job. If you are burning to ask the Ohio comptroller what he thought of the debate, now’s your chance.
When a reporter asks if Clinton is hurt though “guilt-by-association” because her husband signed NAFTA, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland becomes a one-man tornado of spin. “Here again, she may be being held to a [higher] standard simply because she is a spouse,” he complains. Strickland goes on to say that Clinton was always opposed to the trade deal, no matter what she said or wrote before. How does he know this? David Gergen told him so.
“I heard him [Gergen] say that he was at the White House when NAFTA was being debated and discussed and that Hillary Clinton was not a supporter of NAFTA. At least behind the scenes, she expressed her concern,” Strickland says. The hardhats will no doubt be reassured.
Jesse Jackson shows up in the room. Unlike the others, he has no sign-carrier. It turns out, everybody knows who Jesse Jackson is, and that he always speaks for Jesse Jackson.
Cleveland, Wednesday, Feb. 27 (morning): I wake up, pack, check out of the hotel, and leave. I don’t even say goodbye.