By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama launched his general election campaign for president in Virginia yesterday, rolling up his sleeves and rallying families, college students and people playing hooky from work to help him "win this election and change the course of history."
The presumptive Democratic nominee drew more than 10,000 people to a late afternoon rally at Nissan Pavilion and spent the morning courting voters in coal country at a town hall meeting in southwest Virginia. Last night, Obama delayed a trip home to Chicago to meet with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In Virginia, Obama delivered his standard stump speech at both campaign stops, but the events were weighted with significance, a reminder of one of his biggest primary wins and his determination to compete in Virginia and other traditional Republican strongholds in November.
The senator from Illinois noted the symbolism of the first African American presidential nominee appealing for support in a former Confederate state.
"This crowd reflects what was done 40 years ago to perfect this union," Obama told the Nissan crowd, referring to achievements of the civil rights movement. "And now, 40 years later, that same sense of urgency is demanded."
Die-hard Obama supporters and undecided voters converged on the amphitheater in Prince William County three hours before the candidate was scheduled to take the stage at 6 p.m. State and local transportation officials had braced for a major backup on Interstate 66, but traffic was like that of a normal evening rush.
The crowd moved smoothly and quickly through the security checkpoints into the amphitheater. No one was turned away.
Obama was escorted to the stage by the state's top Democratic elected officials, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and U.S. Sen. James Webb, who have been mentioned as possible running mates.
The crowd interrupted Webb as he introduced Obama, shouting, "Yes, we can!"
"Thank you, Virginia!" Obama said as he took the stage. He peeled off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. "This is a good-looking crowd here. And it's fired up . . . "
"Ready to go!" the crowd roared back, invoking the candidate's signature call-and-response chant.
Obama thanked Webb, saying, "If you're in a fight, and we are going to be in a fight, you want Jim Webb to have your back."
He then praised Kaine, who he noted was one of the first elected officials to endorse him "when a lot of people took a wait-and-see attitude."
"When you're in the political business, there are a lot of people who are your allies, there are lot of people who you've got to do business with, but you don't always have a lot of friends. The governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia is my friend."
Earlier yesterday, he campaigned with former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner (D), a candidate for U.S. Senate, at a town hall meeting in Bristol in southwest Virginia.
The campaign had sent out e-mail alerts and posted fliers at Metro stops recruiting volunteers for the event at Nissan. More than 600 people responded and showed up at 11:45 a.m., sporting shirts in varying shades of green, as the campaign instructed.
Gina Bellamy, 46, told her boss that she felt sick and needed to take the rest of the day off. Bellamy, a school nurse in Prince William County, planned to leave work at noon, but when she heard reports that as many as 50,000 people were expected at the rally, she didn't want to chance it. So she left about 11 a.m.
"I even pulled my baby out of school, and I never do that," Bellamy said, referring to her 14-year-old daughter, Stephanie. "But she told her teachers the truth and said that she was going to see Obama."
"She doesn't get it, but one day, she is going to tell her kids about how her crazy mama dragged her to see Obama. I didn't just want her to watch it on TV. I wanted her to see this," Bellamy said.
Pamela Supanik, 48, of Fairfax County, said she went to the rally at Nissan Pavilion to be converted. Through the hard-fought campaign, she had supported Clinton (D-N.Y.) for the Democratic nomination.
"She was my candidate; now I need to educate myself about him," Supanik said of Clinton and Obama. "I'm here to see where he stands on the issues and whether anything he says resonates with me."
The rally drew people from across the region.
Anna Lee Clubb, 18, of Manassas cast her first ballot for Obama in the February primary. The Virginia Tech freshman was excited after hearing him speak in person for the first time yesterday. "Virginia is going to be important in the general election, and he's proven his policies are what we need," she said.
Wyman Robinson and his family caravanned from Maryland's Montgomery County. He packed three generations of relatives, ages 3 to 62, in two cars.
"The chances of me seeing him in real life are getting narrow," Robinson said. "I figured I better come now."
Robinson, 62, a retired police officer who has supported Obama from the start, is optimistic about Obama's chances of making it into the White House. He said he is scoping out tickets for Inauguration Day.
Others decided to come on the spur of the moment.
Miyung Chung didn't plan on attending the rally. Chung, 30, a Gainesville pharmacist, happened upon Nissan Pavilion about 2 p.m. and, not having any plans until dinner, she wandered in.
"I'm undecided," she said. "I was just passing by and decided to come see what he had to say."
Staff writers Shailagh Murray and Mark Berman contributed to this report.