Dem fundraiser draws Obama and Clinton on cusp of primary

Dem fundraiser draws Obama and Clinton on cusp of primary

Two girls, probably in their early 20s, get in the line that has formed in front of the concession stand. It is past 6pm on Saturday evening and all of the big-money Dems have been escorted to the floor of Richmond’s Alltel Pavilion, where they are no doubt enjoying a dinner of steak and salmon right now. The girls look over the menu—popcorn, nachos, hotdogs—usual basketball-game fare. Now that the moneyed and old have been seated, it’s almost nothing but Barack Obama supporters up here, as far as the eye can see.

Where the streets have a new name: In Richmond, young Dems spell out their support for the Illinois Senator.
Links to video from the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner:

Hillary Clinton

Barack Obama

Previous coverage of Obama and Clinton in Virginia:

Obama packs Pavilion
Democratic candidate blasts Bush, calls for change

Pro-Health care, anti-war: Obama Rocks Pavilion [with video]
Branding himself an outsider, Obama calls for a change to D.C. "game"

Clinton packs Paramount, raises dough
Crowd verdict: warm, with ass and feet

Obama, where art thou?
State Democrats eat dinner with the Illinois senator and hope he can make Virginia a Blue state

Both Obama and Hillary Clinton will speak shortly, three days before the Virginia primary’s 103 delegates go up for grabs. Even now, a week past Super Tuesday where the race is still anyone’s, it is hard to say what the major differences are between Clinton and Obama. They are relatively alike on most main policy issues: the war, economy, energy, environment and the perpetual idiocy of the sitting president.

While it became easy to pick out male Clinton supporters in the money crowd by their superfluous amounts of hair gel, so too did it get easier to distinguish Obama supporters later by their youth, and at times, orthodontic braces. (Though what to make of the Obama man in the ascot, three shirt buttons undone?) Surely, the thinking goes, if there were a real difference in the candidates, one would be able to find it among their supporters.

The girls turn away from the menu. The first one, straight black hair, smallish features and quiet, says she’s for Obama. The second, black party dress and pearls, is more aggressive.

“Obama is inspiring,” she says. “Hillary Clinton is more in it for the politics. He’s in it for the real change.”

She goes back to the menu, but then whips around.

“If Hillary wins the nomination,” she says, “I won’t vote for her.”

Clinton told the crowd that the GOP had selected “more of the same” with McCain, a criticism that was leveled at her, too, by Obama’s backers.

This is a surprising sentiment, especially since this is the 2008 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, the annual shindig for the Virginia Democratic Party. But it’s one that I’ll hear throughout the night as I wander the halls outside the arena, searching for random and anonymous Clinton and Obama supporters to ask, What is the biggest difference between Clinton and Obama?

A UVA English major sporting a Clinton sticker says about Obama, “I’ve heard a lot of talk. But there’s nothing really behind it.” It’s hard to find men her age that are for Clinton. As I turn to walk away, she tells me, “I’m also majoring in Women’s Studies.”

The common refrain from Clinton supporters concerns her experience, her years in the White House as the First Lady, her lost scrum over health care reform, her current tenure in the Senate. That’s what two 20-somethings in floral-print dresses, holding Clinton signs, cite when asked about why they chose Hillary. It is what a thin, curly-haired woman from UVA says she likes about Clinton: a direct, one-word answer. “Experience.”

Then she looks down at the Clinton sticker on her shirt. “I came here with the Hillary Club,” she says, maybe a bit sheepishly. “I’m still undecided.”

An hour later, Clinton herself takes the stage amid screams and applause to tout her experience. And she wastes no time in launching broadside attacks at George Bush. For seven years, Clinton says, “we have missed seizing opportunities and addressing our problems.” And, “We cannot get serious about the economy and security until the two oil men leave the White House.”

Clinton gets downright pugilistic about John McCain, now seen as a lock for the Republican nominee. About the Arizona senator she says, “The Republicans have chosen more of the same.” After pointing out that she is the only candidate left—Democrat or Republican—with a health care plan that will cover everyone, she leaps to the attack. “You don’t have to worry that I’ll get knocked out of the ring,” she says and the applause and cheers swell. “I’m ready to go toe-to-toe with McCain wherever and whenever.”

This is precisely the kind of combative stance that Obama supporters say they want to turn away from. A girl in her early 20s, wearing a tie-dyed Obama t-shirt, says that the biggest difference she sees is Obama’s ability to unify and inspire. This, like Clinton’s experience, is the theoretical backbone of what one Obama supporter called “a movement.”

The Obama t-shirt girl shakes her head. “There’s not a single Republican on the planet who will support Clinton.”

And if some of Obama’s supporters who made the trip to Richmond are to be believed, there is a significant number of Democrats who will turn away from Clinton if she does win her party’s nomination.

About 20 minutes before Clinton takes the stage, two girls in party dresses have kicked their high heels off and are leaning against a window, tearing into pretzels and Gatorade. One describes herself as a “more right-leaning moderate.” She says she is voting for Obama simply to keep Clinton out of the national race. She’ll vote for McCain before she votes for Clinton.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people are doing this.”

This is a political conundrum. Obama, according to many pundits, is actually seen as the more left-leaning candidate. But here is Ms. Right Centrist, getting behind “the movement” if only for a chance to tank Hillary.

A man easily 20 years older than most of the Obama supporters scurrying around the hall says Clinton lost him when he heard what he called a “sub-message” in the New Hampshire campaign to “vote white.”

“That was it for me,” he says as he walks away. Perhaps a bit of guilt catches him, and he stops and turns around. “I believe in misogyny,” he says, tongue in cheek. “What can I say?”

Obama is clearly the favorite of the Virginia Democratic machine. Governor Tim Kaine was one of the first public figures to endorse him last year, and former governor L. Douglas Wilder supports him. Only one of the former governors that will speak tonight, Mark Warner, hasn’t come out in favor of Obama. Warner’s got his own U. S. Senate race to worry about, he says. But backing the wrong candidate could work against him in gaining national exposure later.

When Kaine introduces Obama, who won’t take the stage until a little before 10:30pm, supporters drown him out three full times with chants—chants that Kaine joins, smiling like a boy. If the supporters I’ve talked to tonight are backing Obama because of his ability to unite and inspire, then they’ve chosen the right candidate.

While Clinton’s speech leaned heavily on voters’ disgust with Bush and the tough battle ahead, Obama takes the stage and begins by staking out that coveted Democratic turf: that of the underdog. Kaine had just announced minutes earlier that Obama had won all three of the day’s primaries. The Obama crowd in the bleachers resembles a student section at a basketball game. They chant and pump their signs in rhythm. They stand throughout his speech.

“We’ve become cynical,” says Obama. “Our standards have dropped.” He waits a beat, then says. “Not this time.” The crowd’s reaction is explosive. When you talk about hope as much as he does, every speech you give can’t help but come off as some sort of celebration. He has just won three states. By the end of the weekend, he’ll add Maine, making it four.

And maybe that’s what the Obama supporters are talking about. Easily the loudest of the two groups, they waved signs, sported t-shirts (“I rock for Barack”), chanted his name and generally made a feel-good ruckus. Tonight may well have been the first time that the JJ Dinner has seen The Wave during dessert and coffee.

Minutes before Obama took the stage, a middle-aged couple walks the nearly empty hall holding hands. They both wear Obama t-shirts.

“Obama is the best chance to unite America,” says the woman. “It’s a vote for the future, no offense to Hillary.”

She smiles at the man, who says, “It’s time for a change. Hillary Clinton would be the same that we’ve had for the past too many years.”

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