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The American Statesman - Obama Finds Warm Greeting in Chilly Austin

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The American Statesman - Obama Finds Warm Greeting in Chilly Austin
Ends four-day Texas campaign swing with downtown party.

Ending a four-day Texas campaign swing with an outdoor party in downtown Austin, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama stood before a screaming and chanting Friday night crowd looking like a gambling man on a winning streak.

And that's how it must have looked to Obama, too.

"I am here to report that my bet has paid off, my faith in the American people has been vindicated, because you have told me that you want something new, that you are ready for change, that you are ready to move in a new direction," Obama said, strolling the floodlight-bright stage.

"Most of all, Austin, I was betting on you — the American people," he said, adding that his early career as a community organizer convinced him that change happens from the bottom up, not from the top down.

With the Capitol as a backdrop and the barricaded downtown streets as his stage, Obama arrived to thunderous cheers from a two-blocks-deep crowd on Congress Avenue that fit easily in the three blocks reserved for supporters.

Lines began forming a half-hour before the gates opened, extending for several blocks by the time the security scanners began running at 6 p.m.

The party got off to a slow start, but as the streets filled and the temperatures fell into the low 50s, the crowd found warmth by pressing closer to the stage at 11th Street and Congress Avenue.

The street-fair feel was bolstered by the smell of smoked sausage and roasted corn and a band playing a song called "Obama-lujah."

The chill didn't stop James Richard Haecker and Jesse James Mansfield IV from losing their shirts to reveal chests painted red and blue in support of Obama.

"Obama '08, get fired up!" they yelled.

The two Bowie High School juniors are too young to vote in the March 4 primary, but Haecker said he'll be 18 when the November general elections roll around — and said he's going to vote.

And though the cold was starting to sink in, they shrugged off the discomfort. "We don't even do this for our high school football team," Haecker said. "This is all for Obama."

Ecleamus Ricks, 25, and Reshenda Daniels, 26, came to witness what they considered a historic event. "It's the first time an African American running for president has a chance," Daniels said.

Obama's Austin rally followed campaign stops in Edinburg and Corpus Christi as the candidate ventured into country that has been well-traveled by his rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton.

To chants of "Sí se puede" — the Spanish version of his "Yes we can" catchphrase — Obama introduced himself to the area's crucial Hispanic voters by recalling a telegram the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sent to César Chávez as he was organizing farmworkers. "Our cause is the same," King wrote.

"Because what Chávez and King and every other freedom fighter has understood is that there's a time, there's a moment in the life of every generation, when that spirit of hope has to come through," Obama told a crowd estimated at 5,000 in Edinburg.

Friday's rally in Austin came almost one year after Obama drew at least 15,000 people to Austin's Auditorium Shores — and a lot has changed in the meantime.

That wet afternoon, the third-year U.S. senator touched down in Austin as part of a presidential campaign kickoff tour that had started two weeks before.

Local supporters had already convinced the campaign to move the rally from a University of Texas gym. Even so, Obama said he was wowed by the size of the crowd, five times calling it unbelievable.

Obama campaign aides watching the spectacle online from his Chicago headquarters were likewise stunned — and have since said the Austin event provided the first clue of Obama's potential as a political phenomenon far from the Midwest heartland.

On Friday, hundreds of "Stand for Change" rallies later, Obama is no longer a novelty in a crowded Democratic field.

Now he leads the only other viable candidate, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, in pledged delegates, having won 11 straight contests since Feb. 5. He's also ahead in financial resources and momentum. And his delivery is smoother, more confident and more polished than his sometimes-rambling speech a year ago.

On Friday, Obama recalled that previous Austin visit fondly. "It was drizzling, but we still had 20,000 strong that day," Obama said. "There's something about Austin, I don't know. We just get along."

Obama also told the crowd, without mentioning Clinton's name, that his opponent's emphasis on solutions over speeches — and her contention that he lacks experience — overlooks his career and his platform.

"But you know, none of that stuff is going to become real unless we build a working majority for change," Obama said. "That's what we've been doing on this campaign ... So don't tell me about speeches and solutions, because those two things go hand-in-hand."

Of criticism that he's not battle-tested, Obama expressed disbelief.

"Listen, I'm a black man named Barack Obama running for president. You can't tell me I'm not tough," he said.

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