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Can Obama move to the next level?

Six months after launching his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, remarkably little has changed on the campaign trail for Sen. Barack Obama. [!]
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Six months after launching his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, remarkably little has changed on the campaign trail for Sen. Barack Obama.

He got a rapturous reception from the 2,000 people who lined up on the sun-baked sidewalk to hear him speak at Burke High School in Charleston, S.C., Friday.

Then pandemonium erupted when he appeared Friday night at Rep. Jim Clyburn’s fish fry in Columbia.

These responses were essentially the same as the ecstatic welcome he got on his first campaign trip to Manchester, N.H., last December, and when he traveled to other cities last October.

Of the six Democratic presidential contenders who appeared at Clyburn’s fish fry, Obama got the most wildly euphoric reception from a mostly younger (under age 30) crowd that was about equally parts white and black.

As he entered the fish fry, his young fans raised their clenched fists and chanted “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma.”

Sen. Hillary Clinton got a frenzied welcome at the event with drums beating and her mostly female supporters chanting “Hil-a-ree, Hil-a-ree!” but it did not quite equal the wild enthusiasm of the crowd for Obama.

Those who see the Illinois senator for the first time are struck by how lean, young, handsome, and engaging he is.

Johnnie Majar, a retired school guidance counselor from West Ashley, S.C., was one of those who turned out to see Obama in Charleston. “He looks so much younger than on television,” Majar said. “He was straightforward and direct in answering the questions. He’s still number one for me.”

His supporters see him as someone who can overcome not only racial but ideological barriers. “I was moved by his passion for unity, his vision, his message of hope, his intellect,” said George West, a chaplain at a hospital from Anderson, South Carolina. West attended the Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson dinner Friday night in Columbia where Obama mingled with voters. “He has demonstrated he has the capacity to transcend a lot of the partisanship.”

For African-American voters such as West and Majar, Obama is a hero.

As he introduced Obama at his fish fry in Columbia Friday night, Clyburn, the senior statesman among black politicos in South Carolina, said that many people had asked him whether an African-American can get elected president of the United States. “What I say to them is, ‘I don’t know, but I do know this: you can’t win if you don’t run.’ This young man is bringing hope to a lot of young people; he has restored confidence in people that have been disconnected from us,” Clyburn told the crowd.

It was encouragement, but not an endorsement. Yet it also pointed to one reason why crowds turn out in such numbers for Obama: he is the first African-American presidential hopeful who has a chance to win the White House. Who wouldn’t want to see him in person?

But if his Charleston speech is any indication, Obama’s campaign oratory remains quite general. The address had no memorable call to arms or call to action, no righteous anger at the Democrats’ foes, and little zest for combat or sense of the fun of politics.

The Illinois senator did say, among other things:

  • “If we apply technology to the health care system so that we eliminate paperwork and bureaucracy and improve the quality of care, we can take those savings and make sure that every single American has health care.”
  • “There is no easy solution (to urban violent crime) because it took us years to get to this point…. The best anti-crime program is a good education program.”
  • “Parents are going to have to parent… We have too many children who are not being raised.”
  • “I don’t mean to be simplistic about this (drug trafficking), but I do think this is a general thing that I’ve got to remind people of, that government can’t do everything.”
  • “What’s missing is leadership and the capacity for all of us to work together regardless of race, regardless of region. We need to unify the United States of America, not divide the United States of America.”

There was little in the speech that anyone could vehemently object to, but also little that seemed truly unforgettable. One wondered how Obama’s mellow rhetorical approach will work if he’s in a presidential debate in the autumn of 2008 with Rudy Giuliani or John McCain, both of whom have more aggressive styles than he does.

If the weekend’s events in South Carolina are an indicator, Obama should do very well among black voters and among younger white voters in this state’s primary.

But not all younger voters are convinced yet.

Chris Rhodenbaugh, a high school senior from Spartanburg who’s active in his county’s Democratic Party said he preferred New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to Obama.

Rhodenbaugh was passing out “I am a Christian and a Democrat” bumper stickers at Saturday’s South Carolina Democratic Party convention. “When Obama first started his campaign, I was very excited about it, and when he was saying ‘I’m new and I want a change’ I trusted that message,” Rhodenbaugh said. But now “I feel he’s kind of being told what he should be believing.”

In Thursday night’s MSNBC debate,  Rhodenbaugh said, Obama “was being cautious because as the leading candidate, it’s in his best interest to not make anybody hate him. When you have 30 or 40 percent (in public opinion polls) as he has now, there’s no point in saying challenging things that people could take out of context.”

Park Dougherty, a wealth advisory specialist with Citigroup Smith Barney, who came to hear Obama in Charleston, said that while Obama “is a very effective communicator and is inspiring,” he added “for me there were some red flags when he talked about the economy and the debt.”

Obama, he said, did a “disservice” by talking about the national debt in numerical terms and not as a percentage of the gross domestic product.

Dougherty also said he was “disappointed that he was intellectually dishonest” by talking about capping carbon dioxide emissions in terms of a cost only to corporations — and not in terms of its actual effect as a tax on consumers.   

South Carolina will be a decisive test of Obama’s appeal to white Southern blue-collar voters who have for the past 40 years drifted further and further away from the Democratic Party.

John Edwards’s chances of success here in South Carolina depend not only on a victory in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, but on his appeal overpowering Obama’s.

Mike Evatt, a manufacturing worker at the Cryovac plastic wrapping factory in Seneca, S.C., said, “I’ll make a prediction that John Edwards will pull this thing out. The people I work with can’t stand Hillary Clinton and don’t think Obama has the experience. They want to stop them and they think the quickest way to do that is to vote for John Edwards in the primary.”