One thing about Barack Obama's supporters: They don't put much stock in the polls that show him trailing behind Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
"No, I don't really," says Terry Smith, a Durham retiree who, when pressed on the point, shoots back: "Do you?"
Obama backers—judging from a small sample of the folks who turned out to see him Nov. 1 in Durham—think the polls are either overlooking his young and minority supporters (cell phones aren't sampled, they note) or else are coming too soon in the nominating season to count for much.
"They're crap" is Raleigh artist Jennifer Calloway's instant analysis. "They give people the impression that there's confidence in [Clinton]. But unless they've heard Obama speak, people may not know yet what to make of him."
This is a biracial disbelief (Smith is black; Calloway white, for example). But what's most unbelievable to Obama's black supporters, it seems—and several said as they were waiting for him to appear—is that Clinton is competitive with Obama in the polls among African-American voters.
"Can't be," says one black UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate to another Thursday. They're from Africa and don't want to give their names. "Then why did Obama come to N.C. Central and not Chapel Hill?" the other answers. Theirs is a spirited debate about whether Obama has a chance.
One reason Obama came to NCCU, his campaign makes clear, is to recruit volunteers for the South Carolina primary battle Jan. 29. About half the Democrats in South Carolina are black, but polls there show Clinton with a solid lead nonetheless. (A Winthrop University/ETV poll last week had Clinton ahead of Obama 33 to 23 percent, with native son John Edwards third, at 10 percent.) Clinton's also slightly ahead in the latest Iowa polls and far ahead in New Hampshire. Even if Obama stays alive after those two contests and the Nevada and Michigan caucuses, a loss in South Carolina would be devastating.
"We have to do well in South Carolina for Barack Obama to become the next president of the United States," says Teno Figuero, his national field organizer, when he warms up the crowd.
Coming to NCCU turns out to be a good decision. Obama draws a crowd of 3,000 to 4,000, heavily but not exclusively black, young or anything else, particularly. He's been drawing such big, diverse audiences wherever he goes, Obama brags when he takes the stage. "You've got old and young, blacks and whites, Hispanics, Asians—you've got everybody!" he exclaims.
Obama's appearance comes just a few days after he announces that his campaign has entered a "new phase" and he will henceforth be more pointed about his differences with Clinton. There's some of that in his Durham speech, but not much. Obama chides Clinton for supporting the 2002 Senate resolution on invading Iraq—as a Senate candidate then, he opposed it—and declares that she's not "talking straight" on the issue now either, when she refuses to say whether she'd withdraw all combat troops. He will withdraw them, he promises. And he'll negotiate with Iran, Obama adds. Clinton called him "irresponsible" for saying so, but Obama's response is that, like John Kennedy, the president should "never negotiate from fear, but never fear to negotiate."
With the Senate last month voting to brand Iran's military a terrorist organization—again, with Clinton's support—"the drums of war are beating again," Obama warned, adding, "You can't be fooled twice."
For the most part, however, Obama's stump speech is still about his "politics of hope" and the idea that Americans want "to be for something again" after the calamitous Bush years. Implicit is the argument that Clinton, if elected, would make only incremental changes. Like Edwards, Obama is calling for "big changes" and a "sense of urgency" about the country's problems.
Obama hardly needs to say that the fact of his election, in contrast to the victory of another Clinton, would itself be a change of the most fundamental kind. He doesn't, because his supporters say it for him.
First of all, they say, Obama's election would be a break with the "ugly politics" of the Clinton and Bush years. "He's speaking about the issues we're all dreaming about," says Doris Hayes, a retired school administrator from Durham. Hayes flatly rejects the idea that Obama should "go after" Clinton. "Is it because we've become so acclimated to screamed viciousness that Americans equate that mode of behavior with political discourse?" she asks. "Barack Obama is like a light in these dark times" and reminds her of the hope that surrounded JFK's election in 1960.
Secondly, Obama's hip, funny and a "regular guy," unlike the now-establishment Clintons. That's what impressed James Richardson, an NCCU law student. "He looks very comfortable, and carries on not like a person surrounded by six or 10 Secret Service agents, but as a common person."
Third, and most important, his supporters say, his election would be a source of enormous pride for African Americans, especially young African-American men. So says Zach Calloway, Jennifer's son, whose father is black. A senior at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, Zach is looking forward to college and one day running for the Senate himself. "I think [Obama's] presidency would show the tremendous progress this nation has made toward equality, and it would give me hope that my senatorial ambitions may one day be realized," he says.
Richardson agrees. "Without any doubt, Sen. Obama's election would be the most fundamental change this country has ever seen," he says. "Sen. Obama already is something that is lacking in our community: a positive African-American role model for children."
"I am," Richardson concludes, a few days after Obama's speech, "fired up and ready to go."