NOLA - Obama Brings Campaign to Fervent N.O. Crowd
With hope and change as his battle cry, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama came to a city in need of both Thursday, two days ahead of Louisiana's suddenly significant Democratic presidential primary.
The Illinois senator, fresh off a strong Super Tuesday showing that left him in a dead heat with U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York for the party's nomination, started his speech at Tulane University by highlighting signs of New Orleans' resiliency: the Endymion parade's return to Mid-City, the streetcar back on its traditional Uptown route, even the Super Bowl success of New Orleans native Eli Manning.
The only major presidential candidate scheduled to appear in Louisiana before Saturday, Obama also told a crowd of about 3,500 supporters that it will take change in Washington for New Orleans to recover. He pledged that if elected, he would restructure FEMA and make sure there is enough money to protect the area from future storms.
"I promise you that when I'm in the White House I will commit myself every day to keeping up Washington's end of this trust. ... And I will make it clear to members of my administration that their responsibilities don't end in places like the 9th Ward -- they begin there," he said.
Obama spent more than half the day in New Orleans, touring an elementary school operating out of trailers in the 9th Ward and enjoying gumbo for lunch. He then headed to another Saturday primary state -- Nebraska -- as former President Bill Clinton prepared to make a swing across Louisiana today to campaign for his wife.
With the two senators in a tight battle for delegates, at stake in Saturday's primary are 37 of the state's 67 Democratic delegates to the party's convention this fall. The Democrats apportion those delegates based on the popular vote in each of the state's seven congressional districts. The rest are named by party officials or by the Democratic State Central Committee, the party's governing body.
Obama and Clinton continue to raise money at a furious pace. Just since Tuesday, Obama has raised $7.2 million and Clinton has pulled in $6.4 million. Clinton, who loaned her campaign $5 million in the run-up to Super Tuesday, brushed aside the notion she has money problems. She pointed to the roughly even split of delegates still being allocated from Tuesday's results as evidence her campaign has the financial muscle to compete.
"We're going to be fine," said Clinton. "By the end of the week, we'll be back on track," she told a television network.
Clinton is concentrating more on March 4 contests in Ohio and Texas, where polling shows her with a significant lead. She also is looking ahead to the Pennsylvania primary on April 22.
Crowd arrives early
On Thursday, the energy was palpable as a crowd of mostly college students lined up outside Fogelman Arena before dawn to await Obama's arrival. With a line stretched across campus and down Willow Street, hundreds were unable to get in, so Obama stopped briefly to speak to a crowd of about 500 gathered outside.
Under the din of "Yes we can" chants and cries of "I love you, Barack," Obama made his case as the leading agent of change, not by contrasting himself with Clinton, but by focusing on the Bush administration's failures after Hurricane Katrina. The speech's first big cheers erupted when Obama made reference to Bush's flyover to view Katrina's destruction, calling it a "metaphor for his entire presidency."
The senator said that as much as he would like his positions and oratory to inspire people, many of his supporters are driven simply by knowing that "George W. Bush's name won't be on the ballot."
Obama got another loud response when he took shots at Bush's appointment of Michael Brown, who had no emergency management experience, as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Obama promised that his FEMA director would report directly to the president, as was the case before Bush took office and placed the position under the Office of Homeland Security.
"No more Brownie, no more heads of the Arabian Horse Association in charge of FEMA," he said.
The Republican National Committee, which speaks for the White House on political issues, took umbrage with Obama's comments and raised the experience issue, something Clinton emphasized as the campaign got tough.
"Instead of launching political attacks, Barack Obama needs to explain how his own short Senate career qualifies him to take over the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast," said Republican spokeswoman Katie Wright.
But some local Republicans found themselves more impressed with Obama's message than concerned about his experience. George Kobitz of Covington, toting an "Obamacan" sign -- a contraction of "Obama Republican" -- lumped Clinton in with Bush as part of the old guard that has to go.
"I've been a Republican all my life, and this Bush thing didn't go over very well. If it was just Clinton, I would stay a Republican and vote for (Arizona Sen. John) McCain, but Obama's about change," said Kobitz, who drove to Tulane before sunrise to catch the speech. "The Bush-Clinton era is over. We're sick of it."
Some of Obama's recovery proposals Thursday touched on issues already being addressed.
The candidate promised that he would make sure the Army Corps of Engineers has the money to finish raising levees in New Orleans to withstand a 100-year storm by the scheduled date of 2011. Construction is already under way, however, and corps officials say it is on schedule to be finished by 2011 with the exception of relocating three pumping stations to Lake Pontchartrain.
The crowd also roared when he said, "We should set a goal to approve every application for Road Home assistance within two months." The state has already said it would pay 95 percent of eligible homeowners by the end of June. Norman Francis, chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said Obama's statement was "nebulous."
Francis, president of Xavier University, said he hasn't decided whom he will vote for Saturday. But he led Obama's tour of the city Thursday and was wowed by his speech.
"The speech was tremendous for New Orleans," he said. "He covered all the bases. The enthusiasm for him was unbelievable. There is a clear inspirational side of his delivery, and his message totally energizes young people."
Clinton's campaign, meanwhile, attacked Obama for being one of 23 senators to vote against legislation in July 2006 to allow Louisiana to collect a share of revenue from new oil drilling off its shores, something that state leaders considered critical to the recovery. At the time, Obama said he opposed the bill because it would "lull the American people into thinking that we can drill our way out of our energy problems."
"By voting against this vital bill, Senator Obama chose to score political points about 'energy independence,' instead of moving forward with legislation to provide a steady source of funding for recovery efforts in a post-Katrina/Rita Louisiana," said a statement from the Louisiana Clinton campaign.
But Obama was among 79 senators who voted in December for final passage of legislation, as part of a larger bill, that directed oil drilling revenue to Louisiana and other Gulf states. Obama spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said Obama supported oil royalties for Louisiana, but opposed the initial bill because he thought it would be combined with a House package that would have allowed unfettered expansion of drilling off most of the U.S. coast.
Visit with Vallas
Obama also focused on post-Katrina education needs in New Orleans, touring George Washington Carver Elementary School in the Upper 9th Ward. Walking through the cluster of temporary trailers behind a public school bus depot, he learned about the Recovery School District's challenges from an old friend, Superintendent Paul Vallas, who once ran the schools in Obama's hometown of Chicago.
"Superintendent Vallas tells me that, ironically, even though these are transitional buildings, in many ways they're superior to the buildings that existed before the storm," Obama remarked as he paused in a makeshift gym -- essentially a double-wide trailer with a large open floor space.
He spent more than 30 minutes there, asking teachers and administrators about their needs and taking questions from wide-eyed students.
Before heading to Omaha, Neb., Obama stopped at Dooky Chase's restaurant in Treme for a lunch of chicken, sausage and shrimp gumbo with the restaurant's 85-year-old owner, Leah Chase.
"You're too frail, baby. I have to fatten you up," Chase said to the lean Obama.
Chase, who is struggling to get her iconic restaurant back to full strength after Katrina, said she likes Obama, even though she's always been close with President Bush. In explaining her change in allegiance, she summed up the message Obama hopes voters take to heart.
"Things move along, things change," she said.