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The songs - and the candidate - remain the same

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 29 Oct 08, 07:31 PM GMT

Raleigh, North Carolina: Nothing in high-stakes modern American politics is left to chance.

At Barack Obama's rallies there is a music playlist. It is played at every rally. No local favourites sneak in. Just a mixture of old and new.

There is "The Adventure" by Angels and Airwaves, "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang and "Give the People What They Want" by the O'Jays.

I am reliably informed by Rob Magee, my cameraman, that the Obama playlist consists of 21 songs - all soon to be uploaded onto his iPod.

Two songs, however, are used to define the campaign. One is the arrival anthem, that plays Barack Obama onto the stage. It is U2's 'City of Blinding Lights' - with its line "oh you look so beautiful tonight".

And after his speech, when he lifts the bottle of water to his lips, in comes the heavy beat and then Stevie Wonder's scream in "Signed, Sealed, Delivered".

In the arena, a soundman stands at his console and fades in the music, much as if this was a rock show. And in a way it is. The timing is usually immaculate.

Four years ago, John Kerry also had a playlist. His campaign song was "No Surrender" by Bruce Springsteen.

But there was a difference. Mr Kerry lined up rock stars to appear with him: Springsteen, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Bon Jovi.

Mr Obama does not need the band. He is the star. He does not need Hollywood stardust.

I can remember a whisper going around the crowd in Philadelphia: "Will Smith is coming". He did not appear and no-one cared.

The crowds are pumping for Obama, even before he arrives on stage.

(I recall a lunchtime rally in Madison, Wisconsin with Bruce Springsteen and John Kerry in 2004. As soon as Springsteen had done his fifteen minutes, the crowds drifted back to their offices. I always thought Mr Kerry should have done a deal with the crowd: "Hang with me for a few minutes and you'll get Springsteen as your reward.")

The point about the Obama playlist is that it reflects the campaign. I have covered a number of these elections and I have never seen such a disciplined, tightly controlled organisation.

There are no leaks, no raised voices. I am sure there are arguments between David Axelrod, David Plouffe and Robert Gibbs, but they do not show.

His critics may say he has never run anything, never accomplished anything, but his campaign management has been impressive.

So Barack Obama has begun what he calls his closing arguments. In these final days he charts his long, improbable journey from the cold of Maine to the sunshine of California.

There is much detail about tax and healthcare, but when all is stripped away the Obama message comes down to this: the country is on the wrong track and its time for change.

The riff line of his campaign is "change". And the crowd cry back: "Yes We Can".

Most of us desire change. Most of us dream of a better job, or life or relationship. We have all at one time stood on the brink of reinvention.

Change is beguiling when times are rough. And in that sense Barack Obama is a lucky politician.

America is less sure of itself and where it is heading than it has been for as long as I can remember.

What is wrapped inside the slogan of "change" is sometimes hard to pin down but it has served him well.

As the election has moved closer, so another theme has emerged - his populist attack on trickle-down economics.

He speaks of the "tired old theory that says we should give more to billionaires and big corporations and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone".

He wants to grow the economy from the bottom up.

What will this mean in practice? I think an Obama administration will invest heavily in alternative energy programmes and infrastructure and hope that will be an engine-room for jobs.

There is a reflective element to Mr Obama's closing arguments. He thinks America has been living through a period of "profound irresponsibility" in the way its government and people have run up debt.

What he thinks has been lost in the past eight years is "a common sense of purpose".

As so often in modern politics, the message is inseparable from the man.

I have watched him closely at rally after rally.

His playlist does not change - and neither does he.

He is unruffled, disciplined. His organisation is tightly-controlled. They do not like the unpredictable.

Through set-backs and controversies he has conducted his campaign with grace and intellect. He does not strike me as a needy politician.

He has been carried to this point on the wings of rhetoric... to a degree. He has several speeds to his speeches.

I saw him on a cold Sunday in Wilmington. He spoke without notes. He was on fire, lifting up the crowd, letting them fall gently and lifting them again.

He knew how to surf the emotions of a crowd better than any politician apart from, perhaps, Bill Clinton.

In Berlin before a crowd of 250,000 he checked himself. He rowed back. He did not want to be the preacher on the world stage. He wanted to appear statesmanlike, showing off his knowledge of history.

And as the election approaches, he sticks to the words on the autocue. There is no need to take a risk. This is a campaign on cruise control.

The other night in Pittsburgh I had a recurring thought.

The expectations. That I was not at a political rally. The audience were not voters. They were fans, urging their man on to victory.

And as he drew to a close his oratory took off. He could not control himself. The passion flowed. The crowd sensed it. They were on their feet. Not listening to the words.

They were lost in the roar.

When the event was over, some of the crowds lined the streets. The light was on the turn.

The bitter cold had edged down from the North. Many of the people in the crowd were African-American.

They cheered their man out of town. Time and again they have told me "this is our time". This is their victory parade. It is as if the whole weight of their history is being lifted. At last.

But such expectations! What a burden! But that - if the polls are right - lies ahead.

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