Barack Obama Drawing Large Crowds

The Associated Press
Thursday, February 22, 2007; 3:47 AM

WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama's campaign says 9,000 people showed up for his Los Angeles rally, but it's hard to know for sure. The crowd sprawled around the stage set up in a park, a sea of upturned faces and waving campaign signs.

What is clear is that Obama is sparking unusual turnout early in the presidential campaign. Massive crowds are signing up for tickets, standing in long lines and taking time out of their day for the chance to hear the freshman Illinois senator speak in person about his vision for the country.

Obama is taking his campaign to large urban areas outside of the early voting states where presidential candidates typically stump for votes. It's part of a strategy to build his reputation among voters nationwide who still don't know much about him and to create an army of small-dollar donors who are invested in his success.

Supporters like Los Angeles rally attendee Leah Hanes, a Canadian citizen pushing to get her U.S. citizenship in time to vote for Obama. The 52-year-old producer said Obama's challenges growing up of mixed race had given him a depth of understanding she didn't see in other candidates.

"He is a combination of both sides of the country," said Hanes, wearing an Obama T-shirt that she bought at the rally. "He's been through his own struggle. (It's) given him a center."

Obama is expecting huge turnout for rallies Friday in Austin, Texas, and Monday in Cleveland. More than 10,000 people have signed up on Obama's Web site for free tickets to each event, according to the campaign.

That's a larger turnout than President Bush usually gets and certainly more than Obama's rivals in the 2008 campaign are pulling in.

"I think the crowds are indicative of people wanting a fresh face and wanting a leader who can bring America forward," said Trav Robertson, an experienced South Carolina Democratic campaign operative who attended events for Obama and rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in the past week and hasn't settled on a candidate to support. Robertson said both Clinton and Obama brought out packed and excited crowds, although Obama held his event in a larger setting and seemed to bring out more people he hadn't seen around in politics before.

Obama's challenge is twofold _ to maintain his popularity for the next 11 months until primary voting gets under way and to turn the curious into devoted followers who will give money and time.

Tickets to the rallies are free, but the campaign requires registering street and e-mail addresses and a phone number.

"Our biggest challenge is to take this energy and focus it on building a strong, lasting organization," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. He declined to say exactly how many people have signed up with the campaign so far at the events because it's strategic information, but he said it's in the tens of thousands.

Burton says the campaign is using the Internet to keep the attendees informed and organized and asks them to donate and attend campaign meetings.

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