Obama by the Numbers: Twice-Told Tales, and Nine in a Row

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

HOUSTON, Feb. 19 In the lavatory aboard Barack Obama's campaign plane, a cartoon shows the Clintons attempting to roast Obama in a cauldron. Bill stirs, Hillary adds salt and pepper. But Obama is smiling, and all that emerges from the pot are bubbles labeled "Hope."

For Obama, life seems to be imitating art lately. The Clintons in the past couple of weeks have done all they could to cook him up into an airy souffle, a candidate so light in substance that he collapses when speared. They exposed him as a guy who copies others' speeches and makes lofty pledges only to break them.

And yet: The Obama Souffle continues to rise.

Obama scored another convincing victory Tuesday in the Wisconsin primary, bringing his tally to nine straight wins in the past two weeks. The victories gave him a very real lead in delegates and fresh momentum approaching the March 4 primaries in Ohio and here in Texas.

"Houston, I think we've achieved liftoff," Obama told the capacity crowd of more than 18,000 at the Toyota Center, home of the Houston Rockets. They responded with roars that forced people on the arena floor to plug their ears.

A week of news that could have killed a lesser candidate only made Obama stronger. Double-teamed by Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton and likely Republican opponent John McCain, he was portrayed as a man of big words but modest deeds. "To encourage a country with only rhetoric," McCain said last week, "is not a promise of hope, it's a platitude."

Obama made things worse for himself. First came word that he was backing down on his promise to seek public financing in the general election if the Republican agreed to do so -- infuriating the good-government crowd that had adored him. Then, on Saturday night, Obama responded to Clinton's criticism by borrowing, nearly word for word and without attribution, a favorite passage from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. "Don't tell me words don't matter. 'I have a dream' -- just words. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' -- just words. 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' -- just words."

On Tuesday morning, the Clinton campaign publicized another case of Obama apparently appropriating Patrick's words: a quote from last year ("I am not asking anybody to take a chance on me; I am asking you to take a chance on your own aspirations") that was strikingly similar to one that Patrick uttered a year earlier ("I am not asking anyone to take a chance on me; I am asking you to take a chance on your own aspirations").

Still, Obama seemed to borrow anew on Tuesday at an outdoor rally in San Antonio -- this time from former foe John Edwards. Criticizing pharmaceutical companies' ads, Obama joked: "You know those ads where people are running around the fields, you know, they're smiling, you don't know what the drug is for?"

Compare that with this staple of Edwards's 2004 stump speech: "I love the ads. Buy their medicine, take it, and the next day you and your spouse will be skipping through the fields."

The likely nexus: top Obama adviser David Axelrod, who played a similar role for Patrick in 2006 and for Edwards in 2004. That may explain the list of lines Obama lifted from Edwards -- whose campaign compiled a list of the offenses before the candidate dropped out of the race.

Here's Obama's announcement speech in February 2007: "I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."

Compare that with Edwards's 2003 announcement speech: "I haven't spent most of my life in politics, but I've spent enough time in Washington to know how much we need to change Washington."

"We need a president not afraid to use the word 'union,' " Edwards told a steelworker audience in July 2007. "We need a president . . . who is not afraid to mention unions," Obama said a month later. Edwards, accepting the party's vice presidential nomination in 2004, said, "Hard work should be valued in this country, so we're going to reward work, not just wealth." Obama, in turn, has been heard to say, "We shouldn't just be respecting wealth in this country, we should be respecting work."

Whatever we should be respecting, Obama had a ready answer for the questions about his originality: another big primary win.

Just after 5 p.m. Central time yesterday, early exit polls pointed to a victory for Obama in Wisconsin. Ten minutes later, his campaign sent around an Associated Press article seeking to raise the stakes of its likely victory: "Wisconsin is almost the kind of state Hillary Rodham Clinton would have invented to win a Democratic presidential primary. . . . A poor performance there Tuesday would raise big questions about her candidacy."

A couple of hours after that, Obama was at Toyota Center, waiting backstage for the networks to announce his victory. On the floor, a woman in a too-tight shirt danced about the stage and led painful-to-the-eardrum cheers of "Fired up!" and "Ready to go!"

Axelrod, the Obama strategist who authored many of the phrases the candidate borrowed from Edwards and Patrick, preceded the senator to the floor. On the jumbo screen, the campaign played a music video by the Black Eyed Peas' "will.i.am." Its title, "Yes We Can," is a signature slogan of the Obama campaign -- and before that, of Deval Patrick, not to mention César Chávez and Bob the Builder.

A chant of "Yes, we can" filled the arena, and Obama, emerging underneath a banner honoring basketball great Hakeem Olajuwon, enjoyed a reception the Houston Rockets would envy. "The American people have spoken out, and they've said we need to move in a new direction," Obama told the arena.

Whoever first uttered the words that followed, it didn't much matter: On the arena floor, they were drowned out by deafening cheers.

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