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Obama lets his confidence show

Barack Obama is on an electoral roll, and what's not to like? He is like a gambler convinced his every dice roll will come up double sixes.
Obama 2008
Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., greets supporters during a rally Saturday, Feb. 23, 2008, in Cleveland, Ohio. Rick Bowmer / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

Barack Obama has a Barcalounger manner about him these days, padding about those campaign stages like a man commanding his den.

Mr. Obama is on an electoral roll, polls show him pulling closer in Ohio and Texas, crowds show him the Big Celebrity Love, what’s not to like? A touch of cockiness is discernable in his manner now; he is like a gambler convinced his every dice roll will come up double sixes.

His rally in Austin, Tex., on Friday evening fitted his hoped-for-narrative.

Fifteen-thousand people, maybe 20,000, jam into the streets in front of the soaring State Capitol, with the usual Obama-as-electoral-rave giddiness. University of Texas guys with painted faces flash the longhorn symbol with their fingers, red-white-and-blue beach balls bounce through the crowd, a band plays “Obama-alujah” and thousands stand in the chill night ready to be rapturous.

Mr. Obama walks out, left hand stuck in his suit pants pocket, looks around, the klieg lights casting him in a bright glow. After a throat-clearing word or three, he rubs his hands together in anticipation, the crowd tenses, and he says:

“All right. O.K. Let’s go to work here and talk some [big pause] politics!”

YAH! The crowd bounces and roars. So cool! Nothing like a rocking Friday night in Texas.

He lists the arrows that critics sling his way. He’s too hopeful, too inexperienced, not tough enough. At mention of the last, he bobs his head, steps toward the crowd, leans in and says: “Listen, I’m a black guy named Barack Obama running for president. You want to tell me that I’m not tough enough?”

He smirks. “Shoot.”

This audience offers no hint of those oh-so-picky folks in New Hampshire. These are paws up, gooey in love, read his books and quote the passages back at you voters. The other day a Texas crowd cheered his sneeze. Charles Fannin and Katy Orell, two fiftysomething white professionals, hang over the rail on Congress Street, a blanket wrapped around them.

Why Obama? What do you know of him? “Well, both of us have read his books, so we got to know him as a person,” Ms. Orell said. “And we realized how much simpler change is than we thought. He could lead our nation in a way no one has seen.”

The trouble with electoral fevers is that they can burn out. Mr. Obama himself has written of this risk with an out-of-body coolness.

“I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views,” Mr. Obama wrote in “The Audacity of Hope, his I’m-running-for-president book. “As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.”

The candidate milks an applause line in a curious place. He talks smack about President Bush, who served two terms in that capitol building that looms behind him. (Austin is a sort of Longhorn Burlington, Vt.). No matter what happens in November, he says to loud cheers, Mr. Bush is leaving the White House.

“He is coming back to Texas,” Mr. Obama says with a chuckle. “Yes, he is.”

Then he tosses an elbow at the vice president, whom Mr. Obama has taken to calling “my cousin,” as a genealogist has discovered that they share some very distant strands of DNA.

“You are hoping you are related to someone cool,” he said. “But Dick Cheney? That’s a heartbreak.”

So cool to be so lionized; one might not guess that off stage Mr. Obama can act like an elusive starlet of late. When the press approaches, he rations words like gold. He held a brief news conference on Saturday to respond to a passionate attack from Mrs. Clinton, who accused him of distorting her position on trade. But that was his first nonscripted encounter in five days.

Then again, he has that lead and perhaps it is more fun playing the tease. In Edinburg, Tex., Mr. Obama briefly stuck his head through a blue curtain at the far end of the press room.

“Crank it up, guys,” he yelled to reporters bent over their laptops. “Words matter. Don’t listen to Hillary.”

To which he added: “That’s a joke.”

A reporter asked a question. The candidate smiled. And he disappeared from sight.