Damn if I've ever seen as many people in downtown Portland as there were Sunday afternoon, gathered to see Sen. Barack Obama.
Duane Bray, battalion chief of Portland Fire and Rescue, gave an official estimate of 60,000 people inside the event gates at Tom McCall Waterfront Park, with another 15,000 outside watching from various perches. Obama spokesperson Nick Shapiro made sure everyone with a notebook knew that this was hands-down the largest event to date on the campaign trail in 15 months. Lines to get in and see Obama snaked for dozens of blocks throughout the city. Some police officers casually guessed that there were as many as 100,000 people all told. Yeah, that's right, 100,000 people down by the water. That's the entire population of Gresham.
Like the ubiquitous Northwest music festival Sasquatch just a week away, all the elements of an outdoor summer rock gathering were in place: the enormous masses of people, long-ass lines for the Honey Buckets, beach balls passed throughout the crowd, a headliner performance from a high profile act (the Decemberists) and hoards of vendors outside, selling everything Obama (T-shirts, buttons, hats...you name it).
Richard Lee, a guy from Seattle visiting for the weekend, told me as we spilled out of the gates at the end of the event, "the whole thing felt like a Grateful Dead or Rolling Stones concert...but without the obnoxious drunks."
After a fiery introduction by Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Obama took the stage with his wife Michelle and two kids, then looked out upon the enormous mass of people, only able to say, "wow...wow...wow."
"We have had a lot of rallies around the country. I think it is fair to say that this is the most spectacular setting...we have had in this entire campaign. This is unbelievable," he said.
Speaking off-the-cuff for about 36 minutes, Obama's speech wasn't all that different from a town-hall we caught in Albany last week (see "Six Minutes With Barack,"
May 14), or any other speech he's made in the last several months, for that matter. But that didn't bother any one of the thousands of people there. After invoking the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there was the requisite reminder about his continued opposition to the war in Iraq. Then he hit all the big talking points that have been the cornerstones of his campaign platform: He made shout-outs to labor unions and laid into John McCain's proposed gas-tax holiday. He promised health care for every American by the end of his first term, driving special interest out of Washington, better teacher salaries, more responsible mortgage lending practices and a more transparent government. He promised no more "Karl Rove politics."
When it came to talking about the long and drawn-out primary contest, Obama tried to allay fears that the the battle has divided the party. "Whatever differences exist between myself and Senator Clinton pale in comparison to the differences we have with the other side," he said.
He also addressed his disappointment in President Bush's recent trip to the Middle East. "You saw George Bush go to Israel on its 60th anniversary and suggest that those of us who believe in direct diplomacy are somehow appeasers, comparing us to those who appeased Hitler," Obama said.
And sprinkled in with the stump speech, Obama dropped a couple of custom-tailored Oregon anecdotes (and pronounced "Oregon" correctly each time):
"Look at this beautiful day here in Oregon. We've been hearing for years that unless we reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, unless we control the emission of Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we are threatening this fragile planet of ours. We want to pass this on to our children. I want my daughters (who you just saw) to be able to bring their children to this gorgeous city. I want them to be able to enjoy Oregon the same way that all of you enjoy Oregon."
"It's time that the entire country learns about what's happening right here in Portland, with mass transit, and bicycle lanes and funding alternative means of transportation. That's the kind of solution that we need for America."
For the people who weren't there on Sunday (of which at least for Portland Democrats, it's hard to imagine there were many), take a listen to the full audio of Obama's speech, the Decemberists set and Earl Blumenauer's introduction.
For those of you who were there, when you finish applying aloe vera to your sunburn, let us know what you thought about the event and how it will play into the next two days.
Thanks to Parrisa Peik for the photos above, and to Nilina Mason-Campbell for the slideshow of rally photos below: