At 4:30 on Monday afternoon, six buses carrying over 100 New Haven residents pulled up to the XL Center in Hartford. Passengers — including locals and Yale students — unloaded into a crowd of 17,000. Pre-event lines wrapped around the entire city block. Attendees waited in a light snow.
Hours after his opponent Senator Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 held an emotional, intimate roundtable discussion at the Yale Child Study Center, Sen. Barack Obama stood in front of many die-hards — and some skeptics — about 40 miles away. Just one day before primary voting in more than 20 states around the country, Obama was set to “Stand for Change” once again.
So were his supporters. Even if it took some waiting.
“Does is matter that we RSVPed a week ago?” asked Cortney Blanks, who drove up from Stamford with family members.
Although a few attendees interviewed said they would vote for Clinton on Super Tuesday, nearly all prominently displayed support for Obama through buttons, signs and boisterous conversation — suggesting an underlying fear that among the thousands, they simply would not get into the event.
Everyone did find a seat, but they were often empty as crowds punctuated the rally with regular standing ovations. Obama’s speech stuck close to his primary-campaign talking points, employing a rhetoric style that first-timers said was certainly as impressive as they had heard it was.
“Our generation is at war, our planet is in peril and the dream so many generations fought for feels like it is slipping away,” Obama said. “Our schools, despite the slogan, are leaving millions of children behind.”
Obama said he would re-prioritize the nation’s health care system to focus on prevention and freeze taxes for seniors with incomes below $50,000. He also noted his plan for minimum wage would tie it to inflation, drawing some of the loudest applause of the night.
But, after the rally, students said although they did not learn anything new about Obama, they appreciated his direct responses to criticism that he is too weak and too inexperienced.
“ ‘He’ll get steam-rolled,’ they say, ‘by those mean Republicans,’ ” Obama said in his speech, paraphrasing attacks that have been made against him. “But I’m tough. … You can disagree without being disagreeable.”
He cited his experience as a community organizer and a civil rights lawyer, saying he understands the difficulty surrounding real change. But, Obama said, he is optimistic — a term he was careful to define as commitment to hard work rather than unchecked idealism.
Change is a possibility if people believe, Obama told the crowd.
“We believe!” 15,000 crowd members shouted in response.
Olga Pagan ’10, who said that until a week ago she supported Clinton, joined long-time Obama supporters in Hartford on Monday — responding in kind to Obama’s call.
“I’m one of those people who has recently been on the other side, believing him too naive, but I agree that’s what we need now,” Pagan said. “I’m still worried [by his lack of experience], but the only way to change is to act on it.”
Zak Sandler ’08 reiterated Obama’s defense of his message of hope and change.
“What is hope?” he asked, describing and agreeing with Obama’s argument. “It’s not blind optimism. It’s a spark that will take you through difficult times.”
But Obama’s enthusiastically received emphasis on the power of hope was not without the occasional detractor. The few skeptics in the crowd said they were not convinced that there is enough substance behind Obama’s idealism.
Meanwhile, Sandler also said he was impressed that Obama managed to respond to attacks without personally attacking his opponent.
Although Obama did mention Clinton by name, many of his references were more oblique.
He said he is not running for president because he thinks it is owed to him — a direct jab at Clinton — and invoked those surviving on the $7 hourly wages at the local Wal-Mart.
While the comment fits with Obama’s overall platform on labor issues, it also alludes to questions some critics have asked about why Clinton did not take a more outspoken role against what they call unfair labor practices as a member of Wal-Mart’s corporate board in the six years prior to her husband’s presidency.
The New York Times has noted that fellow board members have said she used the position to push for more women in management and for more environmental awareness.
Throughout the speech, Obama kept a close eye on the crowd. Upon hearing a small group begin chanting “We can’t wait” — a phrase Obama had just used — he pointed them out with an outstretched arm, and within seconds the entire arena was chanting the phrase in unison.
And when a woman appeared to faint in the standing-only VIP section in front of the podium, Obama paused his speech for over a minute as he directed the crowd to make way for an EMT team and tossed a bottle of water from the stage.
Before the event, a small group of young students — all first-time voters — from the nearby Weathersfield High School served as a reminder not only of the unprecedented influence of young voters on this election, but also of the mix of opinions that continue to shape the race.
“No one — not liberals, not conservatives — have helped the country,” said Kyle Singerman, a junior and a self-described Republican for Obama. “We need to unite.”
Meanwhile, his friend, Leah Gregorio — a Democrat for Clinton — doubted whether Obama’s words could translate into action.
“I think Obama is very idealistic. I don’t see a lot of meat behind what he says he will do — how he will do it?” she said. “I don’t know if passion is enough.”
After the event, Obama headed to Massachusetts for another rally.
Polls in Connecticut for the presidential primary are open today from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.