It was about 10:30 a.m. and 65-year-old Jenny Hutchinson had been waiting in downtown Tempe for more than an hour to for a chance to see Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
There were more than 1,000 people packed outside Tempe City Hall, an unusually large crowd to gather for a political pep rally — especially on a Monday morning. But then again, the freshman senator isn’t a usual politician.
Hutchinson and a small group of friends came from Mesa for a glimpse at the man they’re sure will be the next president of the United States.
“With Oprah (Winfrey) behind him, how could he lose?” she asked just before Obama delivered his speech. Moments later, Obama arrived to a greeting normally reserved for rock stars.
The large crowd of mostly Democrats let out thunderous applause as soon as Obama took the stage. The visit came one day after he became the talk of the political world by hinting at a potential 2008 presidential run.
The timing couldn’t have been any better for Arizona Democrats. His stop came with just two weeks left until the Nov. 7 elections and was meant to rally backers for the stretch run.
“If we do our work, if we don’t let up, if we knock on doors and make phone calls and talk to our friends and neighbors and make sure they go to the polls, then come Nov. 8th we will have a new House and a new Senate and together we’re going to change the country,” he said.
Obama’s visit to the Valley so close to the election also signals that a number of key congressional races are tightening up, Democratic Party officials said. But an appearance by one of the party’s heaviest hitters also indicates the growing importance of Arizona on the national political stage.
Although the Democratic Party will be focused initially on winning back the U.S. House, Bart Graves, a spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party, said voters should expect to see a lot of potential presidential candidates stumping through the state during the next two years.
“I think this shows how important the state has become,” he said.
Obama began his 15-minute speech by encouraging the audience to vote next month. He went on to talk about health care, education, energy and the war in Iraq. The overall message was “We can do better than that.”
“We live in a cynical time,” he said. “It has been difficult for a lot of us over the last several years to feel hopeful about government and about the direction of the country.”
“And so often it seems as if government is about power instead of principle. That it’s about business instead of mission.”
The 45-year-old senator from Illinois generated a buzz that reverberated throughout the political world Sunday after telling Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he has considered running for the country’s highest elected office.
But on Monday, Obama was deflecting those questions, saying he was focused instead on toppling the GOP in the midterms and taking back the majority in Congress.
Obama has been considered one of the party’s rising stars since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His status rose even higher last week when he graced the cover of Time magazine under the title “Why Barack Obama Could Be The Next President.”
For most of the morning, downtown Tempe had the atmosphere of a political carnival. Nearby street vendors hawked political propaganda, such as Obama shirts and buttons.
Likewise, many people carried signs calling for Obama to make a run for the presidency in two years. And the talk in the crowd was about whether Obama has what it takes to be the next president.
Scottsdale resident Michelle Abert, 50, said she would vote for Obama if she had the chance. “He seems to be about public service and doesn’t want to be in politics for the power,” she said.
Jim Tilman said he doubts whether a black man could rally enough votes to become president.
“No. I don’t believe a black man can win,” said Tilman, who is black. “But I think (Obama) is not really black. I think he’s American and that he transcends race.”
The event, however, wasn’t an entirely partisan affair. In the crowd, a small group claiming to be Republicans held signs that stated “Republicans for Barack.”
In addition to the stop in Tempe, Obama made several other appearances throughout the Valley, including one at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix, where he signed copies of his new book “The Audacity of Hope.”