Image: Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
Alex Brandon  /  AP
At an Oct. 9, rally at Ault Park in Cincinnati, Ohio, presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was shaking hands at a rally when people passed a pink-clad infant to Obama, hand-over-hand from the fourth row, like a tiny crowd-surfer in a rock concert mosh pit.
updated 10/20/2008 3:41:57 PM ET 2008-10-20T19:41:57

People passed the pink-clad infant to Barack Obama, hand-over-hand from the fourth row, like a tiny crowd-surfer in a rock concert mosh pit.

The Democratic presidential nominee cradled the baby, kissed her lightly and whispered in her ear as if to calm her amid the shouting, jostling and picture-taking. Then, jokingly telling the father "don't leave me with the baby," Obama handed her back and continued his way down the line of well-wishers. A baby boy awaited a similar nuzzle.

Working the "ropeline" is an old tradition for big-time politicians. In Obama's case, the barrier that separates him from surging fans is always a low, metal fence, erected around the stage before he arrives.

He generally spends about 10 minutes moving laterally down the line after a campaign speech. Secret Service agents flank him, peering intently into the crowd and shouting "stop pushing" when the crush threatens to knock down the fence.

To anyone watching, Obama's ropelines are loud, intense, chaotic and emotional. To Obama and his campaign, they are necessary, methodical and regimented: No stopping to pose for photos or to sign books, placards or shirts, no matter how much fans plead.

Video: Obama: Changes will have to be made Those who want something autographed must hand it to a hovering aide, with the owner's name enclosed. The materials, mostly copies of Obama's two books, will be spread on long tables in a private room that Obama visits before his motorcade whisks him to the next stop. He signs them quickly, in assembly line fashion, and the owners retrieve them after he is gone.

Only a fraction of the thousands of people who attend Obama's larger rallies manage to touch him. They arrive hours early, stand and cheer during his speech, and then scream, jump and sometimes cry out in joy when he uses both hands to briefly press their arms, hands, fingers.

The noise rivals a rock concert.

Mostly, Obama says simply "thank you," explaining that he can't stop for photos or autographs.

"Just take pictures, I can't pose," he says firmly, as people hold their cameras above the mob. He usually smiles and looks pleased, but he turns somber when he pauses to hear of someone's sorrow. What is a once-in-a-lifetime thrill for his supporters is a daily job for Obama, and he performs it in steady, workmanlike fashion.

People five, six, even 10 rows back stretch out their arms in vain, unable to reach him. Most call out "good luck," or "we're with you." Some appear too awe-struck to speak.

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Others clearly want a longer conversation. But Obama usually keeps moving at his steady pace, inches from the bedlam. He pauses for only a few.

In Cincinnati recently, a middle-aged black woman gripped his arm and said, "I'm living my mother's dream," apparently a reference to seeing a black man so close to winning the presidency. Obama hugged her and moved on. She wiped her eyes.

Diane Kelly, 64, got two hugs. Trembling with emotion, she caught his attention by saying, "Thank you for the hope." He hugged her, and said, "I appreciate you."

She would not let go. "I think I'm going to cry," she told him. Obama hugged her again and moved on.

Kelly, who is white, wept, hiding her eyes with her hand.

Later, in an interview, she said, "He reminds me of President Kennedy. He's down to earth, he realizes what our struggles are."

"I'm still shaking," she said. "He's the only hope we have."

By then, Obama had finished the ropeline and was inside, signing books. The motorcade was ready to take him to his next rally and another ropeline in another town.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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