Obama rocks fans in Nebraska

February 8, 2008 3:29:55 PM PST
FIRST PARAGRAPH Regularly drawing crowds of 10,000 or more, Democrat Barack Obama has been likened to a rock star so often that it has worn thin. But the cliche got put to a real test this week in Omaha, Neb., and Obama passed.

Warming up for the presidential candidate at the jam-packed Omaha Civic Center on Thursday was local acoustic rock band Bright Eyes, fronted by singer-songwriter Conor Oberst. Known mainly by indie-rock fans outside Nebraska, the band is widely followed and admired in Omaha.

The crowd of 10,000 warmly applauded the quartet's half dozen songs. But when Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., introduced Obama nearly an hour later, the roar was far more deafening. One young woman seemed at risk of falling over a rail as she tried to touch the presidential candidate's upstretched hand.

Obama delivered his 40-minute stump speech, hitting all his usual applause and laugh lines, including: "In November, my cousin Dick Cheney's name will not be on the ballot!"

Armchair sociologists are pondering whether Obama's remarkable primary-election crowds, which sometimes reach 20,000, will translate into huge voter turnouts. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton hopes the Oberst-Obama analogy is apt. She will settle for him attracting hip, college-age folks if it makes him a niche candidate while she gets Dave Matthews-like turnouts.

--- The campaign's exhausting pace often shows on the candidates, but Obama seemed upbeat and bouncy most of the week.

Touring an elementary school in New Orleans, he tried to banter with pre-K children, but some seemed too awed - or perhaps frightened by the crush of reporters and cameras - to shake his hand or even look at him.

When Obama greeted kindergartner Xavier Adkins by name, the child seemed stunned. "How did you know my name?" he asked.

"You have a name tag," Obama said with a laugh. "Did you think I was guessing?"

He teased youngsters in the lunchroom, saying, "I'm not sure I'd drink that strawberry milk. Now chocolate milk, I'll drink that."

Later, at Dooky Chase's Creole restaurant in New Orleans' Tremee neighborhood, Obama joshed with longtime owner Leah Chase.

"You're too frail, baby," she said, feeling the candidate's rib cage. "We gotta fatten you up."

Obama agreed to a bowl of gumbo, and even offered to buy a round for the reporters and photographers tagging along.

Usually smooth and charming, Obama showed he is capable of an offkey note. Before sampling the gumbo, he asked for a bottle of hot sauce, and generously dosed his serving.

"I hope this isn't insulting," he said. Chase, sitting at his side, stared straight ahead.

The reporters, for what it's worth, agreed that the gumbo was perfect without doctoring.