The “O” Train Makes A Whistle-Stop In Tampa

He came. They saw. He conquered.

The Barack Obama “‘O’ Train” made a whistle-stop appearance in Tampa last week – at a private, $2,300-per-person fund-raiser and a later $25-per-person gathering at Ybor City’s Cuban Club. Things could not have gone any better for the Illinois senator and prominent presidential candidate – including threatening weather that turned benign just in time.

“Beyond our wildest expectations,” assessed Frank Sanchez, the CEO of Tampa’s Renaissance Steel who, as a member of Obama’s national financial committee as well as an adviser on Latin America, was the go-to guy for the fund-raising doubleheader.

“The campaign gave us a date, and we put it together in five weeks,” said Sanchez, who was working with about 100 volunteers and a core executive committee of seven members. “I felt tremendous pressure to deliver a good event,” he acknowledged. “We were hoping for 1,500 (at the Cuban Club) and we got 2,000. We were hoping for $200,000 (overall) and we raised $250,000.”

Up first was a noon Hyde Park assemblage hosted by Norma Gene Lykes. Contributors paid $2,300 apiece for mimosas, brunch fare and intimate Obaman sound bites and photo-ops. Sanchez was struck by the crowd’s composition.

“That definitely caught my eye,” noted Sanchez. “It was such a diverse crowd – whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, members of the Muslim community. And then it was the same thing at the Cuban Club. It’s one of the reasons Obama’s candidacy excites me. He quite literally has the capacity to bring people together — no matter what the differences.”

According to those present, Obama’s sense of humor and timing were impressive at the brunch. He also proved a patient listener. He worked the room as well as he worked that podium at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

The Cuban Club scene could not have been orchestrated any better had Buzby Berkeley been directing. The candidate was in full deus ex machina mode as he descended the iconic building’s fire-escape steps to the courtyard below — to the strains of “Stars & Stripes Forever” performed by members of the Florida A&M Marching Band. A demographic olio of ages, genders and hues awaited. As did a sea of signs (“Follow your heart, Bama,” “Hop on the ‘O’ Train”), t-shirts (“Barack & Roll”), souvenir hand fans, and uplifted cameras, autobiographies and spirits.

Then that inimitable, infectious smile. And that back-at-ya hand clap.

And that impassioned, populist message with those well-received applause lines.

The rhetoric of inclusion – delivered authentically enough by someone with roots in Kenya and Kansas, was front and center. He pivoted from retelling his recent political pilgrimage to Selma, Ala., to underscore that America needed another epiphany, another defining moment to rethink what Americans have in common and re-commit to a sense of community.

“Because of that march,” he stated, “I can run for president.”

This was not a crowd for whom Obama was not black enough or angry enough or experienced enough or specific enough. It was a crowd for whom Obama was not one of the usual suspects.

“We are all connected as people,” he told his animated audience. The reality of the uneducated, the unhealthy, the economically unhinged “diminishes all of us.”

To Sanchez, the Obama appeal transcends race. “I really don’t think they see a black person or a white person,” he observed. “I think they see a person with something to offer.”

They certainly saw a person who spoke forcefully against the sort of cynicism that has voters, declared Obama, too often sizing up their electoral choices as the “lesser of two evils” and settling for a government that “will do us no harm.”

“We can do better than that,” intoned Obama. “I feel the winds of change coming. I hope that this campaign becomes a vehicle for your hopes, for your dreams, for the aspirations you have for your children and grandchildren.”For historical perspective, he referenced the Boston Tea Party, the abolitionists’ fight against slavery, the struggle for women’s suffrage, the battle to unionize, the Selma freedom marches and John F. Kennedy’s determination to put a man on the moon–when it was less than certain it could be done.

“We’ve turned the page before,” he said. “Now let’s do it again. People are tired of the old okey-doke.”

What, presumably, they are not tired of is hearing about the next incarnation of the FDR social compact. It’s part of the basic Obama boilerplate — from “universal health care” to “an economy that serves all” – not just some.

“We’re at a crossroads in our history,” said Obama – from health care to energy to foreign policy. He wants this country’s entrepreneurial bent applied full bore to affect a “green economy” that would make America much less dependent on foreign oil and no longer susceptible to scenarios where “we end up funding both sides of the war on terrorism.”

On Iraq, per se, which induced his loudest crowd reaction, he reminded everyone that he was opposed to the war from the start and as president would “end the combat presence there.”He labeled it “a war that should never have been authorized and should have never been waged

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