Fineman: Obama’s Oprah Challenge

Forty years ago, when Andrea Perry was a cheerleader at St. Bonaventure, administrators at the upstate New York school barred her from traveling to Columbia, S.C., with the basketball team. The sad but obvious reason: she was black.

But history works in wondrous ways.

As fate would have it, Perry, a third-generation New Yorker, moved here to Columbia in 1978. She worked for the University of South Carolina, sending her daughter, Philana, to the just-desegregated public schools. Now, on a sunny Sunday all these many years later, mother and daughter joined 20,000 others who listened with rapt attention to Oprah Winfrey introduce Sen. Barack Obama as the next president of the United States.

"I thought it was all downhill after the Kennedys were killed," said Perry. "I put politics aside. I'm 60 years old and I've never had a bumper sticker, never worn a T-shirt like this" – she pointed to her blue Obama T. "Maybe it's not all downhill after all," she said. "He was everything I expected," she said. "Not an opportunist, but an honest guy."

If Obama hopes to win, here and elsewhere, he has to hope he makes the sale he made to Andrea Perry.

In a sun-splashed football stadium, the crowd—black and white, young and old—gathered to hear the hip-hop funk of the '90s hip-hop group Arrested Development, followed by Michelle Obama, who gave way to Oprah, who gave way to the candidate.

The good news for Obama is that Oprah was his lead-in. She is wildly popular, as the banshee screams proved when she strode onto the stage in black slacks and a canary yellow jacket.

But the bad news is that Oprah was his lead-in. She is astonishing, truly. The woman was on her maiden campaign trail voyage, and yet she already she was better—more cogent, more effective, more convincing—than anyone out there. "I'm the third best speaker on the stage," the senator said. Unfortunately, he was right.

Summoning the communications skills she had assembled from years of book reading, book-group hosting, TV-show headlining and movie acting, Oprah riffed her way through an eloquent paean to the need for a change of leadership in America. "Dr. King talked about the dream," she said. "Now we get to vote that dream into reality. You gotta step out of your box!" she said. "We can dream America anew!"

She directly tackled the "experience" question that Hillary Clinton's campaign has thrown at Obama, saying that the country should prefer "the wisdom won from years of serving outside the walls of Washington, DC." In fact, there are no walls around the nation's capital—just a traffic-clogged highway—but I know what she meant.

"It's Obama time!" she declared, and the candidate emerged from a tunnel and onto the stage.

Whether by instinct or design, the thin-as-a-rail, youthful looking Obama looked somehow innocent as he appeared—a man-child in this setting, doted over and presented by two powerful, commanding women (his wife and his endorser).

He said all the right things for the crowd—expressing his support for universal health care, for better public schools funding, for a defense of the nation based on diplomacy as well as military might. His biggest applause line came when he reminded the crowd that George Bush would not be on the ballot in 2008.

The pictures were great—there will be ads on the air soon from this event (the Obama staff had three cameras working it). But the candidate went on—and on—and toward the end seemed to leave the crowd less pumped up than Oprah had made it.

If Obama is to be the Democratic nominee, let alone president, he needs to stoke the emotions of the black community. In the crowd here were many African-Americans, unlike Andrea Perry, teetering between gratitude and loyalty to the Clintons and the gathering hope that one of their own might make it to the White House.

Obama needs to convert hope into votes here in the South Carolina primary on January 26. If past is prologue, half of the voters will be African-Americans, and Obama needs a strong vote among them if he expects to win.

A new poll in Columbia's The State newspaper, out today, shows Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton clinging to a slim 28 percent to 25 percent over Obama in South Carolina, with former Sen. John Edwards still in the running with 18 percent. Hillary leads among women, 34-21 percent; Obama leads among blacks, 37-21. He has to expand that margin if he hopes to win.

Some African-Americans came here wanting to get a sense of whether the Obama campaign was as big-time as advertised. The sense was: if we invest out hopes in this guy, we want to make sure it is the real deal. "We want this thing to go, so we want to see if it's done right," said Damon Wilder, a car salesman who drove three hours with his girlfriend from Georgia. "I can't quite get over the Clintons, but I'm here to see if I should."

Obama's campaign hoped that today's rally would help voters—black and white Democrats alike—"get over" Bill and Hillary Clinton. Expecting a large crowd, they moved the event outdoors to the University of South Carolina's football stadium east of downtown. Besides Oprah—the endorsers of all endorsers—organizers tried to build the crowd by inviting the hip-hop Arrested Development and other entertainers.

For those with a sense of South Carolina's past, it was a remarkable event. It was from the state capitol in Columbia that the late Sen. Strom Thurmond launched his "Dixiecrat" segregationist presidential campaign in 1948; that same building still bears the bullet-pocked scars of Gen. Sherman's March to the Sea in the Civil War.

And now there were Obama and Oprah in the football stadium.

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