The October 9 Obama rally in Portsmouth, Ohio.
Photo: Tom Sexton

Despite an uncharacteristically hot October Thursday afternoon in the small river front community of Portsmouth, Ohio, thousands gathered to hear Senator Barack Obama, on the homestretch of this campaign, make his pitch for the crucial rural Ohio vote on the campus of Shawnee State University.

I was among them. And, while my vote was not particularly being courted (I’m from Kentucky, a state the Obama campaign has largely conceded to McCain), I wasn’t the only Bluegrass native in attendance while Obama appealed to rural Ohioans.

John Clevenger, a Flatwoods, Kentucky, native, was standing with me in the line that started near the entrance of the Alumni green on Shawnee’s campus and ran nearly all the way down Third Street, the street that fronts Shawnee’s small campus. Clevenger sported a bright yellow oversized shirt with “Boilermakers for Obama” emblazoned on the front and “Boilermakers for Change” on the back. He told me he belonged to the union that represented welders, metal workers”¦boilermakers. “Some boilermakers build nuclear power plants, some just weld.” Clevenger said.

The Boilermakers wouldn’t be the only workers union there. Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) stood in the crowd, too.

While in line, I couldn’t help but note that waiting for the big speech at a political rally was a lot like standing in line to watch WWF wrestling live when I was in 6th grade. People were hocking bootleg merchandise. Campus church groups handed out anti-abortion literature and people talked about the upcoming show.

I walked through a metal detector and then into the concourse to the sounds of a Staple Singers hit, “I’ll Take You There,” playing over the loudspeakers. I saw a sign hanging from a building that read: Christians for Obama. I was a bit surprised. I knew the McCain-Palin crowd still had a stranglehold on the conservative-religious vote, but there were elderly white people standing behind the sign.

I made my way to the grass in front of the stage where Obama would speak, getting the best spot I could in the already raucous crowd. Elderly black ladies with airbrushed images of Barack and Michelle Obama on their shirts and summer hats on their heads talked about how they never thought it possible that a black man would ever be in Obama’s position.

An older gentlemen with a U.S. Army hat sitting atop his sweaty brow told me that he leaned toward voting for John McCain, but he and a few of the men from his American Legion post came to the Obama rally to “check him out.”

College-aged girls sporting Abercrombie clothes and (obnoxiously) big-framed sunglasses jostled their camera phones waiting to get a snapshot of the presidential hopeful.

A college aged guy with Jesus-length hair and a Dave Matthews Band shirt on also sported a sticker that read “I Voted Early for Obama.”

After about two hours had passed, and the crowd heard “I’ll Take You There” about eight more times, the program finally began with a parade of speakers: a state representative, a candidate for Congress and finally, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown. Brown said, “You people from Kentucky need to go ahead and vote out (Republican Senator) Mitch McConnell in November.”

And then Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, a native of nearby Duck Run, Ohio, and former Shawnee State University professor came to the microphone. Strickland gave the standard endorsement to Obama and addressed an issue that concerns a lot of sportsmen in rural America. “We care about family, faith, and community,” Strickland said. “We also care about the Bill of Rights. That includes the Second Amendment. I’m here tonight to tell you, that through direct talks I’ve had with him, if you are a hunter or gun owner, you have nothing to fear from Barack Obama. You can tell ’em I told you so. Tell ’em, “˜Ted told me!’”

After Strickland left the stage, we waited another hour (and heard the Staple Singers again). Then the candidate appeared.

Obama joined hands and raised the arms of Strickland and Brown in a show of partisan solidarity. After apologizing for his tardiness, Obama immediately jumped into his usual stump fare: tax cuts, the economy, etc., before engaging the mostly rural crowd by launching into a humorous-folksy anecdote about an encounter he had with a “dyed-in-the-wool” Republican who owned a diner in Georgetown, Ohio.

The owner’s employees wanted to take a picture with Obama to get their boss “riled-up.” The owner comes out to exchange pleasantries with Obama, who is about to eat some pie. Obama said he asked, “How’s business?” To which, according to Obama the owner replies, “Not so good.” Obama then asks the diner owner who’s been running the White House for the last eight years and Congress for six of the last eight years? The diner owner responds: You may have a point. And Obama asks if it hurts to keep banging his head against the wall like that.

Obama’s story telling ability seemed to play well, as this was one of Obama’s best moments with the crowd that evening. He promised to create more jobs, especially jobs building a supply of renewable energy. He closed by asking the students of Shawnee State and those from the nearby Ohio counties of Scioto and Pike to “go out tomorrow and vote for me.” He also asked students to have what his campaign has dubbed “the talk” with parents and grandparents about voting Democratic.

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