Milford, New Hampshire
WELL THIS IS uncomfortable. Twenty-four hours after finishing their brawl in Iowa, the Democratic candidates are all in the same room together to speak at the New Hampshire Democratic party's 100 Club dinner. Fortunately, it's a big room--the New Hampshire Dome, which is the biggest indoor arena in the state.
There's a polite round of applause for the now-departed Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, but this crowd belongs to Obama, body and soul. There are 3,500 ticket-holders in attendance, theoretically from the full spectrum of party regulars. And whenever Obama's name is mentioned, they go insane--shouting, chanting, holding up small round "O" signs.
To start the night, however, we have Howard Dean, who says that America "can't afford a third term of George W. Bush." He says that he always knew that New Hampshire was a Blue State at heart. And he talks about how Republicans have stolen elections and ruined the country. It's sad to see that there are people out there who still believe in the old politics of us-versus-them. Because there isn't a Red America and a Blue America--there's the United States of America. Barack Obama taught me that.
(There I go with the kidding again. Sorry. There's only so much hope you can imbibe in one day before it makes you giddy.)
Dennis Kucinich speaks first. Among other things, he says that George Bush and Dick Cheney should be held accountable for "war crimes" for which he says there is no statute of limitations. The crowd loves it. They also cheer when he says that we need to "end war as an instrument of policy." But the biggest applause comes when he calls for the impeachment of the president and vice president. Presumably before the war crimes tribunal.
He's followed by Hillary Clinton, whose supporters are flagging signs shouting "READY," which may be the new "change" (the Dixie Chicks' song "Ready to Run" is her new theme song). She gets a long standing ovation to start.
But a few minutes into her speech she trots out her standard line about how "some people think you get change by demanding it and some people think you get change by hoping for it" (a dig at Edwards and Obama)--there's actually some booing. It throws her off. After starting the speech upbeat and sunny, she becomes a bit brittle. The response from the audience gets fainter with each applause line until you can actually see the Obama supporters sitting on their hands, their "O" signs resting on their laps.
"We have to pick a president who is ready on day one," she says, to muted applause from her small contingent. The Obama crowd then waves their signs and begins chanting "Obama! Obama!" while she keeps speaking. It's a tense moment and Clinton seems rattled by it.
Clinton's retooled pitch is that she's survived 16 years of Republican attacks and that she's still standing, while Barack Obama is an untested, unknown commodity. It's not an unreasonable position. But it doesn't sound like a winning one, either.
Bill Richardson follows Clinton. His speech is filled with substance and policy details. No one pays much attention. Guests mill about, making for the bathrooms. Somewhere, Horatio Sanz cries; to him, a Richardson presidency would have been worth millions.
Almost as soon as Richardson is off the stage, Obama's supporters start chanting his name, their voices booming off of the puffy, plastic dome some 70-feet overhead. He owns the room and he hasn't even shown his face yet.
When he walks on stage, the crowd goes nuts. It takes him almost a minute to quiet them so that he can speak. Tonight he's in full command of his powers.
Obama has all sorts of problems and vulnerabilities as a candidate. But he can give a speech. He is often likened to Bill Clinton, but the better comparison, as an orator, is Tony Blair. When Obama's at the top of his game, he has the same magnetism and gravity. Last night was one of those performances; tonight is too.
If Obama keeps having nights like this over the next four weeks, Hillary Clinton is in real trouble.
Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.