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Barack Obama appeals to Cashman crowd with Will Rogers folksiness

The storm clouds boiled over the Spring Mountain range and down into the valley on Wednesday, spraying wind-blown showers and drenching the streets as the crowd of more than 11,000 Barack Obama supporters filed into Cashman Field.

They had come to hear the Democratic presidential nominee derided by conservatives as a messiah wannabe and an inexperienced political preacher. Republican presidential nominee John McCain, in fact, has produced television advertisements that played up the cinematic Moses and Biblical imagery to send the message that Obama is at best a false prophet.

Recalling that, I had to smile when, just minutes before Obama took the stage, the wind quieted, the rain ceased, and the clouds parted just enough to dapple the ballpark in sunshine.

Maybe it was just a coincidence.

The Obama I heard Wednesday wasn’t conjuring the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King. If anything, he was superbly rendering the best of Will Rogers with his folksy talk about the storms on Wall Street and Main Street and his deft digs at his opponent. Obama lacked only a weathered hat and copy of the daily newspaper for props.

Let’s be frank: It was an easy week to throw down on the evils of the Wall Street class. Thanks to the Bush administration, insurance giants and preferred mortgage behemoths enjoy consummate corporate socialism while taxpayers at the bottom of the food chain learn all about the perils of hard-core capitalism.

The second half of Obama’s speech was more boilerplate than groundbreaking, but as I worked the crowd I came away thinking his mass appeal has more in common with the Great Communicator Ronald Reagan than anything emanating from a Sunday pulpit.

Nearly three decades ago, the folksy-brilliant Reagan gave Americans hope at a time the country was roiled in an economic storm and crushing interest rates.

People I interviewed Wednesday struck me not so much as dizzy acolytes, but as ordinary citizens aching for clearer skies.

For courtroom consultant Stephanie Myers, Obama represents an opportunity to keep the United States Supreme Court from shifting too far to the right. Abortion rights and equal pay for women are important issues to her. Although she supported Hillary Clinton, she’s unimpressed with McCain’s vice presidential choice, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

“I think it will be an absolute scandal if we get McCain in there with Palin,” Myers says. “She’s the most anti-women woman to ever run for office. … She is a woman who does not trust other women with decisions about their own body. And that’s wrong.”

Small-business owners Tyronda and Jerry Weinert, accompanied by their children William and Vanessa, took time out from running the Potato Valley Café downtown to listen to Obama speak, especially about the shaky state of the economy.

“The economy is No. 1 for us,” Tyronda says. “Health care No. 2 for us.”

These difficult times have them listening more closely to the Democrat on economic and health care issues.

Edward Alfonso brought his daughter, Giselle, to the Cashman rally. He sees the race in nothing short of historic terms.

“To me, it’s the most important election of our lives,” Alfonso says. “It’s been like a wasted eight years we’ve had. If you wake up today, versus 2001 when this started, you’re no better off. If it keeps going like this, it might be the end of the country as we know it.”

From his wheelchair in the crowded baseball park, Gary Jackson says, “It’s going to take a lot. He’s not a savior. If he does get in, look what he has to straighten out. But I think he represents change. It’s a nice logo, but now go put that logo into effect.”

Of course, presidential campaigns aren’t won on the strength of a single speech. The campaign grows increasingly angry, and the McCain-Palin ticket has fired up Republicans pining for something positive.

I think it would be a mistake for Obama to get too caught up in the angry rhetoric. It’s not his strong suit, and that’s what allies Joe Biden and Bill Richardson are for.

Obama is at his best when he conjures rhetorical images of Rogers and Reagan.

If Obama should lose, he can always remind people he’s not a member of an organized political party. He’s a Democrat.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0295.

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