The risk of expectation

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 21 Oct 08, 02:32 AM GMT

It was the children that caught my eye. The sheer number that were turning up for the Obama rally in North Carolina. Some carried big cartons of popcorn or foil-wrapped dogs, seeping with ketchup as if arriving for a movie or a ballgame.

I had never seen so many children at a rally. At first I thought it was because it was a Sunday and baby-sitters were scarce. After a few conversations I realised something else was happening. Many in the crowd were history-seekers. Their children had been brought along so that when they were older they would be told: "You went to an Obama rally." The parents were laying something down for the future.

obama_291_ap.jpgProbably 70% of the audience was African-American although that wasn't reflected in the selected guests that filled the stage behind the candidate. (At all these rallies there is an element of stage management. I watched posters being handed out to those in the line of sight of the cameras with slogans like 'Army4Obama.' 'Military4Obama' and 'Veterans for Obama.)

One woman said she wanted her children to see the first African-American president. She, like many in the audience, was without doubt. When Barack Obama finally emerged the crowd erupted. It was not applause but a roar like one that greets a winning team or the full-throated cry of the fan.

When Obama said there had been some good news that morning there were a few screams. That was before he mentioned the name of Colin Powell. Many in the audience wore Obama tee-shirts with words like "hope" or "change" stamped on them. When he arrived thousands of cell-phones were raised as if in salute. All raised to capture a moment. To be able to say sometime in the future "I was there" and "I was part of history". And when he spoke many stayed standing. They were riding a victory tide.

And that is when I thought - what would happen on 4 November if he lost?

Disappointment is built into democracy but would this crowd or any of the vast numbers he is pulling in accept defeat? Some still feel betrayed after the election of 2000 when the Supreme Court gave the election to George W Bush over Al Gore. How do I know the hurt lingers? Because at the rallies, when Obama urges them not to be confused or bamboozled they respond: "Not this time."

The candidate faces a dilemma. He has to enthuse, to inspire, to work up - to get out the vote. What he cannot do is worry about the let-down if he loses. In Philadelphia just off Locust street a young woman, just turned 18, hinted to me that there would be an explosion of anger if Obama lost. No-one else has said it but when you feel the passion of the crowds it leaves you wondering.

It is one of the dangers of negative campaigning that if you win the disappointed feel "cheated". It is one reason that so many question whether some Republicans should be asking "who is a real American" or raising doubts about Obama's patriotism because if failure were to follow some in the Obama camp would feel they had been "mugged".

Barack Obama warns against expectations or complacency. "For those of you who are feeling giddy or cocky..." he mentions two words "New Hampshire" where he was ahead in the primary but went on to lose. But his crowds sway and dance to the Obama play-list. For all the world it looks like a celebration has begun.

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