Hillary, Obama and the space between: Front-row access to caucus fever in Washington state

By Andy Hobbs, The Mirror

Panties and booze apparently, and perhaps appropriately, go hand-in-hand with political rallies.

On Feb. 8, the day before Washington state’s pivotal caucuses, the leading presidential campaigns vied for that last chunk of influence among voters. For the Democrats, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama performed for star-struck political junkies at two very different shows Friday in Western Washington.

The candidates’ words soak all media outlets daily, so don’t look for a regurgitation of their stump speeches here. Both candidates played kissy-face with state politicians before spitting out similar platforms on universal health care, opposition to Iraq, disdain for corporate greed and love for unions. If you’ve followed the race so far, they said nothing new.

Both aim to make history as either the first female or first black president, so a front-row seat was a must for pursuing two groundbreaking candidates.

First stop on Friday was the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, where Clinton planned her second local speech in as many days.

At 9:42 a.m., the line wrapped around the college’s fieldhouse, about 30 minutes before the scheduled start of Hillary’s pitch.

A belligerent middle-aged man — who was also quite drunk — walked up beside me by the entrance. The people queuing up against the wall had just started to enter. Swearing enough to make a Marine blush, this stout man insisted he and his friend would not be waiting in line this morning, then marched through the door.

I followed right behind after flashing a press pass to the volunteers outside. They waved me along like royalty, and I ended up walking next to that drunk guy upon filing into the crowd. With a grin plastered across his face, he slurred his way through colorful phrases that illustrated the excitement of his first presidential campaign rally — which, contrary to his pre-party condition, was fairly tame.

Not only was the rally rather wholesome, but also carefully nuanced. Campaign volunteers bellowed for health care supporters to sit up front. Banners along the walls read “Clean House ... the White House” and “Hillary = Change.”

Even with the buzzword “change” cemented into their messages, music also matters for both candidates’ strategies. “Suddenly I See” and “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” piped through the venue as union members, nurses and teachers gleefully waved Hillary signs in unison. Women outnumbered men, maybe 2 to 1, and a galaxy of ethnicities attended.

The media’s cameras were set up on two stages: One for TV crews and a side area for news photographers. This being a spur-of-the-moment trip, I was without a camera and completely fine with that.

The fieldhouse was relatively empty when I strolled up to a spot next to the stage. One woman scribbled in her notebook a few seats down, a digital camera resting on her lap. She agreed to e-mail a photo, and I took off to mingle.

Kent resident Chad Smith of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades endorsed Clinton because she supports their labor stance on apprenticeship and alternatives other than college. The IUPAT represents 190,000 workers in the Northwest, and Clinton “gets our message out,” Smith said.

Four serious individuals with sheriff-like stars pinned on their lapels scanned the audience with Secret Service intensity. When seeking a trash can for my coffee cup, one of them stopped me cold with a firm palm to the chest.

I meandered to the opposite side of the stage, then scrambled for a new seat in front of the media photographers’ stand after seeing the crowd reach capacity.

I sat near the aisle next to a young college graduate with an oversized sport coat and a thirst for politics. Unlike the anti-Hillary sentiment at the Obama event later that day, this young man expressed more of a preference for Clinton than an ardent stance.

To my left stood a stoic retired army general who arrived just as Clinton’s first warm-up speaker grabbed a microphone. Some guy on stage told a somber story about his sick mother before leading the crowd into chants of “Hillary!” Then Jay Inslee, a state representative from Bainbridge Island, charmed the audience by tossing in Bush bashing for extra spice.

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell finally handed the mike to Hillary Clinton following a brief introduction. Just seeing the two senators side by side revealed an obvious clue as to who looked the part of a presidential candidate. One sound bite from Clinton that sparked a fire: “The era of cowboy diplomacy is over.”

At noon, I dashed toward the door en route to the next stop, and Hillary’s rhetoric grew quieter with each step. Partially motivated by that large coffee waking up my bladder, I had to hustle to catch Obama in Seattle. I rested easy knowing his warm-up spinsters would buy me another hour past his scheduled 12:30 p.m. start.

I found free street parking nearly a mile away from Key Arena. With cheap leather shoes galloping across the sidewalks, I ran full stride, halting only to wait for green lights. I could faintly hear Gov. Christine Gregoire upon seeing the crowd up ahead. For a second, I wondered if Obama decided to do this outside.

Moments after slowing to a stop at the steps of Key Arena, Obama and his preacher-like delivery heated the chilly air for a few thousand people who couldn’t get in. Like Clinton the night before on the Seattle waterfront, Obama attracted thousands. Estimates hover around 21,000 after counting the 18,000 capacity for Key Arena.

If Hillary’s show was a pep rally, Obama’s felt more like a rock concert. The number of people rooting outside the arena matched the entire audience at the earlier rally in Tacoma. They were equally attentive, but certainly more satisfied with the entertainment in Seattle.

Each security officer laughed heartily at my press pass. “You should have gotten here at 9:30 a.m. with the rest of the media,” one snickered. “They can’t let anyone else in.”

The press pass temporarily lost its magic and conjured no luck at any other entrance. I made my way around the arena’s perimeter, squinting to catch glimpses of the speech on those little TVs that dot the arena’s hallways, visible through glass walls from the outside. I walked past one teen waltzing aimlessly over a vent, then passed through a cloud of smoke emanating from a pair of young men who may or may not have been inhaling. Notable T-shirt sighting: “Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton,” only the final Clinton was crossed out with “Obama” written in red.

At the arena’s exit, no fewer than 25 Seattle police motorcycles lined up at the curb, all leaning in the same direction. Several cops wearing helmets and goggles puffed on stogies as a few people peeked through the gate.

An SUV could be seen on the other side, with its lights shining, as if ready to pull out any minute. Suit-wearing security agents paced the grounds.

One guy who caught Obama’s arrival shuffled through several blurry pictures on a digital camera. The candidate greeted a mob of fans with a megaphone, and this guy held the camera high above his head, blindly snapping images. A woman who drove up from Salem, Ore., should have left 10 minutes earlier, she said. She now staked out a piece of asphalt in the de facto front row to Obama’s backstage exit.

Two college students, ages 18 and 19, motored in from the Everett area just a little too late. “I want to see the man,” one of the students said. “I want to believe he’s real.” One recent college grad who got there at 8 a.m. landed a seat just a few rows from the stage on the inside — and craved more.

At least one fan justified Obama’s popularity among women. To the widened eyes of every man within earshot, she pulled from her jacket a pair of pink and white thong panties. She was disappointed at not getting a chance to toss the panties on stage as a gift for her favorite presidential candidate — and we’re not referring to Bill Clinton. She reminisced about hearing Obama speak last year at The Showbox, and showed a few photos: “I should have thrown my panties then.”

This event was not a tasteless pandemonium of debauchery. The congregation, like the one earlier for Clinton, evoked a peaceful and enthusiastic support for the candidate of choice.

A Seattle officer then announced that Obama would exit in about an hour and a half. Hoping to warm up in a nearby coffee shop, I rounded the corner and ended up at a bar.

This particular place opened early specifically for the event, the bartender said. Sonics basketball games don’t draw the masses like this, he said, noting that even the pedestrian traffic seemed higher than usual. He witnessed lines earlier that morning that stretched for blocks.

A couple sat at the other edge of the bar, their camera resting alongside twin beer glasses. They just left the rally. Thanks to a TV at the bar, I could watch the live camera feed following Obama, post-speech. The political fever was contagious as the bartender, couple and myself engaged in a lively discussion on elections as well as candidates in both parties.

About 30 minutes later, I returned to the original scene. The crowd had thinned considerably, but soon swelled again as Obama’s departure neared. A TV cameraman stood ready to shoot just across the street.

I reclaimed my spot next to the couple from Salem, right in the “front row” with the parked police motorcycles. Most in the crowd prepared their cameras and cell phones, ready for a celebrity’s fleeting appearance.

The gate finally opened and cheers erupted. Two SUVs wheeled out, and in the second vehicle, in the backseat, I could see only Obama’s arm, which was extended in a wave. The window was tinted, but others confirmed they saw the man himself.

Just like that, the candidate was gone. The people dissipated like breath in the wind. Litter choked the common areas surrounding the arena where thousands of spectators, cameras and all, gathered hours ago.

But the show itself is far from over. The hype will help make history as the Clinton and Obama campaigns approach a climax in their fight for the nomination.

The missing answer in all this is determining which voters will crash the main party in November, and which voters will clean up afterward.

Contact Andy Hobbs: editor@fedwaymirror.com

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