Obama campaigns to build momentum

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks during a town hall meeting Wednesday in Des Moines, Iowa. The Associated Press

AP

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks during a town hall meeting Wednesday in Des Moines, Iowa. The Associated Press

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Leah Hanes had never been much into politics until she ended up at a Barack Obama rally this week in Los Angeles, wearing a campaign T-shirt that she bought onsite like a concertgoer who found a new favorite band.

Hanes, a Canadian who lives in Los Angeles, said she is going to push to get her U.S. citizenship in time for the 2008 election so she can vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. The 52-year-old producer said Obama’s challenges growing up of mixed race had given him a depth of understanding she didn’t see in other candidates and she thinks he can make a difference.

“He is a combination of both sides of the country,” said Hanes, one of thousands who turned up to hear the Illinois senator at a Los Angeles park, sprawling 360 degrees around the stage. “He’s been through his own struggle. (It’s) given him a center.”

Hanes is among the throngs of people who have turned out to hear Obama speak during the two weeks since the Illinois senator formally entered the race. Obama is drawing eye-popping crowds in an unusual campaign swing that is taking him to large urban areas outside of the early voting states where presidential candidates typically stump for votes.

The people Obama is attracting in those cities won’t be able to cast votes in states like Iowa and New Hampshire that are so critical to deciding who makes it to the White House. But his tour is designed to build his reputation among voters nationwide who still don’t know much about him and to create an army of small-dollar donors who are invested in his success.

Obama is expecting huge turnout for rallies Friday in Austin, Texas, and Monday in Cleveland. More than 10,000 people have signed up on Obama’s Web site for free tickets to each event, according to the campaign.

That’s a larger turnout than President Bush usually gets and certainly more than Obama’s rivals in the 2008 campaign are pulling in.

“I think the crowds are indicative of people wanting a fresh face and wanting a leader who can bring America forward,” said Trav Robertson, an experienced South Carolina Democratic campaign operative who attended events for Obama and rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in the past week and hasn’t settled on a candidate to support.

Robertson said both Clinton and Obama brought out packed and excited crowds, although Obama held his event in a larger setting and seemed to bring out more people he hadn’t seen around in politics before.

Obama’s challenge is twofold – to maintain his popularity for the next 11 months until primary voting gets under way, and to turn the curious into devoted followers who will give money and time.

Tickets to the rallies are free, but the campaign requires attendees to register with a name, phone number and street and e-mail addresses.

“Our biggest challenge is to take this energy and focus it on building a strong, lasting organization,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. He declined to say exactly how many people have signed up with the campaign so far at the events because it’s strategic information, but he said it’s in the tens of thousands.

Burton says the campaign is using the Internet to keep the attendees informed and organized and asks them to donate and attend campaign meetings.

Obama is also routinely selling out his fundraising events. His Los Angeles rally was paired with a star-studded Hollywood fundraiser that had to be moved from a 400-seat restaurant to a hotel ballroom that fit 600 because of the demand for tickets.

Associated Press writers Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles and Philip Elliott in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.