By Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Portland, Oregon. Earl is the co-chair of the Oregon for Obama campaign.
Friday March 21st, Barack Obama took Oregon by storm and I had a front row seat. Actually my front row seat started 46 hours earlier as the word of his pending visit spread. As the co-chair of the Oregon campaign and leading the efforts in the state, we were swamped by the reaction. Even with the arrival of paid Obama staff, the wave we sensed became a tsunami of Obama fever. By Friday morning, it was clear that something special was going to happen.
People had arrived early including some camping overnight. One prominent Republican told me, with a smile, that he was there "under an assumed name."
The energy, the enthusiasm, the insight and the hope in evidence in that room would characterize the entire day.
Watching Obama's arrival, his easy manner working his way through the line and locking on small groups, giving warm and full attention to each person was phenomenal. I wondered what it would be like as the grueling day wore on with 30,000 more people.
I was part of a short warm up event. It takes time to get the crowd in those large venues and they are "fired up and ready to go." Not since the Blazers were "Red Hot & Rolling" to their lone 1977 NBA Championship had I seen that much energy in the Memorial Coliseum.
The campaign makes every minute count. There is always a presentation from a campaign organizer to focus on what they can do to help starting immediately. Then a local volunteer, in this case a PSU student - the backbone of the effort.
I'm watching the intense crowd and its reactions. I've addressed far larger... 50,000 at the summer waterfront rally in the 2004 election and I am routinely on national TV and radio broadcasts. But this is a different experience entirely.
I worked hard to share my message in just five or six minutes to set the stage. I was surrounded by a sea of people who care so passionately.
It is hard to explain that experience because the air of expectation was so strong and the crowd so responsive. As a political speaker, it was exhilarating yet at the same time draining. In six minutes or so I rejoined my family, heart pumping and ears ringing, thinking that was only six minutes and Barack will do that for an hour, then again and again, all day.
In a few minutes the Senator took the stage with Gov. Bill Richardson. A notion of a possible "mystery guest" was in the draft agendas and by then the news was out that Richardson would make his endorsement.
This was a huge boost for the campaign from a key contender for President, from a national leader of Hispanics, and a former Clinton Cabinet official to boot! This was woven together for an audience transfixed. I looked at my own family... the 90-minute wait a thing of the past... carried away by the Senator, the Governor, and passionate supporters.
All day I would see the same pattern as Oregonians reacted to this message of hope and real straight talk. (Not John McCain's parody of the same name).
After the speech, we joined a small group of local "super delegates" and friends of the Senator. Even though he had just finished an amazing crowd experience that any politician would die for (but few could manage), he gave each person total attention. When he reached our family, my wife Margaret was shocked that her daughter Claire perhaps for the first time in her life was speechless, barely able to tell him she was a freshman at Grant High, despite his gentle prodding. Finally Claire, who had been selling cookies to raise money for the Mercy Corps Darfur program, said she liked that he mentioned Darfur and jumped up and gave him a big warm hug.
For me, it was the most intense, personal example of the transforming power of this amazing campaign and extraordinary candidate.
After this, still processing what was happening, I watched Governor Richardson and the Senator face the press, Oregon media with national reporters. The Portland event was broadcast live nationally and drew even more attention due to the bombshell of the Richardson endorsement.
I visited before and after with Richardson, with whom I served in the House and our paths had been crossing this year around the country. Bill himself was "on", clearly motivated to help Barack campaign. His joke on stage about how Barack helped him out during a debate, whispering "Katrina, Katrina" when he hadn't heard a question, instead of "throwing him under the bus" was vintage Richardson.
The bus we would travel down the valley was plush, a far cry from the vans from earlier in the Obama campaign.
For months, they would travel Iowa in vans, holding meetings with farmers and truckers as they traveled 45 minutes to the next town.
Every candidate I've traveled with works hard between the stops, but the Obama routine seemed especially rigorous.... Between every stop there were phone calls to the national economic experts... checking with the campaign operations. He would converse with the travel team, including David Axelrod, the campaign's chief strategist. He and I chatted about Oregon's natural resources, land use planning, and other environmental initiatives, including county timber payments.
Food was ever present, much of it what I would term "campaign comfort food": candy energy bars, soft drinks, green tea beverages ("high in anti-oxidants.") Sandwiches, burgers to be microwaved (no takers that I saw). Pizza materialized after our stop at the American Dream Pizza Shop in Corvallis (an older sister of the one by the same name in Northeast Portland) which seemed more popular than any of the snacks. Obama ate one of four steak dinners on board, pronounced it pretty good, but didn't persuade anyone else to partake. He has lost seven pounds over the course of the campaign despite showing a keen appetite. Watching the energy he expended non-stop, one could understand how he could burn a prodigious number of calories.
The element of crowd control is a challenge and a priority for every campaign, but a particularly unique challenge for the Obama team. At least a rock concert can ration at least partially with price. We were trying to be inclusive and all the tickets were free (unless one went to Craig's List where they were on sale for $100 after supply ran out). The crush of the crowds is a huge safety and logistical problem. Security and crowd movement require lots of time to move the thousands of people at every venue. Since there are always more than can be safely allowed into the arenas, armories, and coliseums, the campaign tries to provide overflow facilities where Obama visited at every stop.
Stop number two was the Salem Armory. It too was at capacity with enthusiastic supporters but with a different feel than Portland. More mid-valley, slightly older, more Latino faces. Every crowd of the Obama campaign looked much like America and especially what America is becoming... diverse and multi-cultural. There was a very wide range of how people dressed and looked, with children very much in evidence. People came as families, often multi-generational, exhilarating I found this packed audience, though smaller, every bit as challenging to address.
The next stop was in Corvallis – an unannounced drop by at a pizza parlor & short walk on Main Street. There were hundreds of people who had a chance to see the Senator, shake hands, and participate in the low key casual exchange.
All this had gone so smoothly that we were actually ahead of schedule when we left Corvallis, which strangely was a problem. So the motorcade slowed to perhaps 40 miles per hour with the police escort. It took me awhile to figure out why traveling in motorcade with Secret Service, a police escort, and controlled freeway onramps take this long to get to Eugene.
There was an overflow crowd again in Eugene, some actually camped the night before to be sure to get in. If Barack were to arrive early it disrupts the process as people crowd to see him. You cannot speed it up and still deal fairly with 15,000 people, as only 2/3 will fit in "The Pit," as we told him McArthur Court was named.
As we arrived, there was a sea of people on the field outside where Barack would spend several minutes speaking to them. I went in to be part of the warm up.
It was an amazing scene. People were literally hanging from the rafters. Exactly one week before, I was there yelling with Jefferson and Grant High fans as the Portland teams won the 5A and 6A Boys Basketball Championships (my son Jon was an assistant coach for the Grant Generals).
The roar of the crowd was far louder than the basketball game and was compounded by some of the amplifiers at the stage back that it was almost physically painful. They were so pumped up that their cheers and laughter sometimes prevents you from hearing your own words and was disorienting. How does Obama keep everything straight during the seventh appearance of the day, after shaking throngs of hands in four cities to say nothing of about 24 interviews and press conferences.
There was no hint of a letdown because his 8th appearance, 12 hours after he began, was as impressive as the first. He was, if anything, more energized by the people and their enthusiasm. He had drawn new information about Oregon which found its way into his presentation. He was unfailing in his attention to individuals in the crowd, treating them like real people, just as he treats his audience as "grown ups."
As we boarded the bus for the last ride of the day to the airport the candidate seemed completely relaxed for the first time in the 15 hours I had been with him. The pressing focus was what happened to his selections in the campaign's NCAA tournament bracket. Everyone on the bus seemed a fan if not a "jock" and the TV in the background most of the day was usually one of the tournament games.
Reggie, the man who seemed to keep everything moving for the candidate was writing furiously and checking sheets of paper that this time were not schedules, memos and logistics, but the various tournament brackets of "Team Obama."
Then it was on to the plane, a 737 leased by the campaign for the quick 20 minute flight to Medford. Arriving at the hotel well after midnight, then after 5 or 6 hours of sleep, Senator Barack Obama would start again, his 16th month of non-stop effort to change not just the face but the landscape of American politics.
Sharing just 16 hours of those 16 months I walk away more committed to his campaign, more convinced that he is exactly the person we need as President to usher in a new political era for these challenging times. Then early the next morning it began again, as Medford rose to the occasion and so did Barack Obama.