At Va. Campaign Rally, It's Establishment vs. Inspiration

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, February 10, 2008

T he candidate was more than an hour late, and the crowd, stuck in a stuffy high school gym in Arlington, was getting antsy. A campaign staffer took the stage with a big pile of T-shirts to give to those who answered trivia questions about Hillary Clinton.

Her birthplace? Got it. Her law school? Piece of cake. How much of the country would Clinton's health plan cover? "All," came the answer. Okay, final question: "This person is the next president of the United States . . ."

Suddenly, all around me, the bleachers in the Washington-Lee High School gym shook with shouts of "Obama!"

"Oh, no," said Linda Cooper, a Chantilly homemaker and Hillary fan who was sitting next to me. "I guess she doesn't have the young people."

No, she doesn't. Teachers gave Washington-Lee students the option of attending the Clinton rally as a civics lesson, and more than a thousand kids grabbed the chance to see democracy in action. But as much as they appreciated a glance inside the machinery of retail politics and contemporary celebrity, most students seemed far more taken with Barack Obama or John McCain than with the former first lady.

"We're mostly for Obama or apathetic," said Patrick O'Malley, a senior at Yorktown High who considers Clinton "manipulative and underhanded."

"Hillary is so establishment," said Morgan Henry, a junior at Wakefield High who will cast his first vote for Obama. "And I don't want two presidents." He quoted his stepfather's comment that he's for Obama but would switch to McCain if Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, "because even though he doesn't agree with McCain on issues, he respects his honesty and integrity."

If there was a certain lack of spirit and cheer for Clinton in the gym throughout the afternoon, it came from two sources: those who really preferred Obama, and those who deeply admire Clinton but recognize that she faces a tough road lined with lots of folks who just don't like her.

"She has had to be tougher because she's a woman," said Cooper, who came to the rally with friends with whom she ran a Girl Scout troop back when the kids were little. "Anytime she shows any emotion, it's viewed as a bad thing. So people see her as wooden. But to us, she's such a powerful symbol."

"I have a daughter, and I'm active in Girl Scouts," said one of Cooper's friends, Carol Cross of Oakton. "It's all about growing woman leadership. And what could be a better example of it than this?"

That enthusiasm was strongest among the middle-age white women who, aside from students, made up the largest contingent at the rally. "She's so smart and so concerned about average people," said Catherine Giovannoni, a lawyer at Steptoe & Johnson in Washington. "And I want a woman in the . . . White House. She'll bring a different sensibility. You can see that in her emphasis on health care and education."

Every one of the women I spoke to who avidly support Clinton said they like Obama and would have no problem voting for him in November. But it's also true that among the many Obama supporters I talked to in the gym, well more than half said they would at least consider voting for McCain over Clinton.

"Obama is inspirational," said Giovannoni. "Hillary is what she is -- a smart, powerful woman. And that's not always a positive in this society."

That said, Giovannoni is convinced Clinton can top McCain: "He's an old white guy who says we'll be in Iraq for 100 years and the jobs just aren't coming back. She can beat that."

But many women at the rally questioned whether other Americans share their passion and pride in someone they see as a model working mother. "We loved the Clintons, but I don't know how much everybody else loves her," said Pam Lockridge, a special education teacher at Washington-Lee. "Because of her, girls have hope. That's important. But there has been a change. People want something new. Obama is like the new wine."

The Bible, like American voters, is of two minds about new wine. Luke suggests that the old is good; after all, "No one after drinking old wine desires new wine." But in Matthew and Mark, the emphasis is on putting the new wine into new skins, for the old vessels simply cannot withstand the power of that which is still fermenting.

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