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Pressing His Bet

Obama takes the gloves off and goes after Clinton.

10:04 PM, Jan 17, 2008 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Las Vegas

BARACK OBAMA CAME TO Rancho High School (no relation to Rancho Carne H.S.) to hold a town hall in an area outside the main gymnasium. It was a smaller venue, with chairs set up for 500 or so, not counting the caravan of media, who numbered perhaps 80. Still, people began lining up outside the school an hour before the doors were scheduled to open. This being the Obama campaign, of course, the doors opened late. But by the time the senator arrived on the makeshift stage, the area was packed with people standing behind the chairs and crowding an open hallway above the space that functioned as a balcony.

Like every other public structure in Vegas, Rancho High looks like it was built yesterday, with high ceilings, open architecture and the type of exposed, industrial design more normally associated with dot-com start-ups and trendy restaurants. Rancho High: a shining example of how the gaming industry helps communities!

One of the many odd things about Nevada this week has been the repeated attempts by media and campaign staff to remind voters about how the caucus process actually works. Only 9,000 Nevadans participated in the 2004 caucus; it was the largest turnout in state history. This is not a citizenry steeped in its electoral tradition. Or, to put it less politely, after generations of never bothering to caucus, Nevadans have been rewarded with a significant say in the Democratic primary process.

At the Rancho High rally, for instance, two twenty-somethings conducted a "caucus process trivia" contest with the audience before Obama arrived. Listening to a crowd trying to answer remedial questions on how to caucus was not a little unsettling.

Two hours after the doors were scheduled to open, Michelle Obama took the stage to introduce her husband. "We are at a point in time . . . where we need a leader . . . who will inspire our souls," she said. She added that her husband is the "only front-runner in this race" who has spent more than 8 years working at the state level in politics. See, Obama's inexperience isn't a bug--it's a feature! Finally she boasted that "Barack is one of the smartest men we will see in our lifetime."

The crowd was thrilled when Senator Obama finally did arrive, and they gave him a rousing ovation. He gave them his standard stump speech, which is remarkable in its constancy. All stump speeches are rote, of course. But Obama's fidelity from event to event is striking. Early in each speech, for example, Obama asks to see a show of hands of undecided voters. As the hands shoot into the air, Obama points to two of them and says, "We got some lives ones here. [beat] There's one right there. [beat] Okay." It's the same every time, word-for-word, right down to the pauses and the half-muttered "Okay."

But none of that mattered to the crowd at Rancho High. They loved him. They loved his call for change, his remark that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney won't be on the ballot in November. They loved his class-warfare charge that, "You have CEOs making more in 10 minutes than ordinary workers are making in a year." More than anything else, they loved his claim that he had opposed the Iraq war from the start and that he would end it once he was president.

But midway into the speech, Obama did something very different: For the first time, he went directly after Hillary Clinton with a character attack.

He opened with a bit of humor, bringing up Tuesday's debate and asking the crowd if they remember when the candidates were asked what their greatest weakness is. Obama joked that he answered the question honestly, while Clinton and Edwards said, "My biggest weakness is that I'm just too passionate about helping poor people!" Obama laughed and joked that instead of answering the question honestly, he should have said, "I like to help old ladies across the street . . . it's terrible!"

Obama capped the joke by saying, "Folks, they don't tell you what they mean." It's his new line for Clinton. He attacked Clinton's recent Meet the Press appearance, paraphrasing her response to a question on the 2001 bankruptcy bill, saying that she said "'I voted for it, but I'm glad to see it didn't pass.'"

"But if you didn't want to see it pass, you would have voted against it!" Obama thundered.

He disputed Clinton's accusation that he has flip-flopped on Iraq: "I have said over and over again on this subject--I'm against Iraq. . . . Never been for it. Never said I was for it." And he defended his position on Yucca Mountain: "Suddenly, you've got, Clinton came out and said 'He's for Yucca.' What part of 'I'm not for Yucca' don't you understand?"

"People don't say what they mean," Obama jauntily intoned.