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42 and 44?

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 30 Oct 08, 10:16 PM GMT

Orlando, Florida: It was approaching the midnight hour when the police outriders, their lights flashing blue and red, passed under an American flag and the patient Orlando crowd broke into applause.

clintonobama203x152_getty.jpgThe announcer called for a welcome for the 42nd President of the United States and for the 44th - yet to be chosen. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama emerged together. They are both consumate workers of a rope line and they plunged into the crowd as if fearful they might be outdone by the other.

Whether you like them or not they are among the best communicators of the modern era; politicians who can move a crowd.

As they were walked towards the lecturn there was a lot of touching, as is common in a new relationship. All evening they were attentive to each other. An arm across a shoulder, a little touch on the arm, a full embrace.

A few months ago there was bad blood. The Obama team believed Bill Clinton had tried to pigeon-hole him as a black politician. But that was then when Hillary still hoped to claim the crown.

Barack Obama is a natural toucher. An arm around Mahmoud Abbas. An arm around Sarkozy. The arm is outstrectched because he is consensus man who believes that his warmth, his magic can cross any divide. (The only time I have seen him recoil was when he was leaving the Elysee and Sarkozy tried to kiss him goodbye. As Sarkozy stood on his toes Obama turned his head.) But last night touching, embracing was in.

Bill Clinton was neither coy nor coded. Right from the start he was endorsing the younger man: "Hello Orlando. America is ready for a new president. This new president," he said pointing at Obama, who by now was seated on a stool. Clinton's voice was slightly strained but he made the point that Obama's crowds were the future. Look around, he said, the people here are highly diverse. He acknowledged "there were a few old grey haired guys like me". But he went on to say that this type of crowd
was America's future.

Clinton's basic point was that the basic income of many people had fallen. The system was not working. A country needed a strong middle class. It is the same populist theme that lies at the heart of Obama's message.

It was an evening when compliments were splashing around but Bill Clinton said one of the arguments for Obama was the way he had run his campaign. He doubted whether in history there had been a campaign that had involved so many people either as volunteers or online or collecting money.

When he was done, Obama embraced him and whispered in his ear: "Couldn't have done better, thank you." Clinton sat slightly behind Obama as he delivered his "closing arguments" speech. It was a chance for one of the great orators to study the new contender. Afterwards, with just a note of awe, Clinton said: "He didn't always rely on the auto-prompt."

Now, in his time, neither did Clinton, but these are the last bone-weary days of a campaign when mistakes can come. Bill Clinton noticed that Obama "was tired when he arrived but the crowd lifted him up". Clinton understood this so well. Down or exhausted he could always draw energy from a crowd.

Afterwards came the full embrace, the hug, their arms lingering around each other. The importance for Obama was that in places like Ohio, Florida (the so-called i-4 corridor) and Pennsylvania there are still mainly white working class voters who went for Hillary but may not yet support Barack. The Obama team are nervous about them and that was Bill's value to them.

Before the rally most of the TV networks had run the 30-minute Obama infomercial. You could see the money on the screen - the music, the slow dissolves, the picture quality. When it came to Barack Obama standing up and moving to the front of the desk I felt I was in the Oval office already. This was the president speaking or so it seemed. I wondered what the voters made of it. Did they see a leader who would look comfortable in the Oval Office or did they pause and say: "Hang on we haven't voted for him yet."

Then the black-and-white images followed. There is often a nostalgic quality to them. The picture of Obama going up the staircase reminded me of JFK. The Obama team, it seems to me, take nothing for granted. They are the consummate campaigners. They are five days from touch down and ahead in the polls but they have Bill Clinton at a midnight rally, Al Gore popping up in Florida, the scene of his nightmare, a 30 minute ad. They are the team ahead and are showing all the nerves of the front-runner.

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