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With Kerry Under the Spanish Oaks

Barack Obama receives a hug and an endorsement from former presidential candidate John Kerry as he speaks during a campaign stop at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. (Reuters).

By Alec MacGillis
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- One could detect, at first, the slightest bit of confusion and letdown in the huge crowd gathered on a glorious sunny day under the Spanish oaks: they had been waiting in very long lines for more than an hour to see the biggest new political sensation in years, and now they were getting...John Kerry?

But a moment later, the import of Kerry's presence at the Barack Obama rally at the College of Charleston set in -- even for the vast majority who were unaware of Kerry's oh-so-valuable voter mailing list -- and they cheered the affirmation of Obama by at least one pillar of the national Democratic establishment.

"Martin Luther King said the time is always right to do what is right," Kerry boomed across the packed courtyard, with the neoclassical columns of old Randolph Hall behind him, "and I am here in South Carolina because this is the right time to share with you, to make sure that we know, that I have the confidence that Barack Obama can be, will be, and should be the next president."

There was a certain historical irony to the moment. In 2004, Obama had burst onto the national scene with his speech at the Democratic convention in Boston, a speech that, in its more prosaic sections, praised Kerry, the party's nominee, for his long service to the country, in Vietnam and the Senate. Now here was Kerry coming to speak on Obama's behalf before an audience of several thousand to make the mirror image case: that Democrats should rally around Obama precisely because he possessed a judgment and idealism that had been untarnished by an overlong tenure in Washington.

"Mile by mile on the long march of this campaign the cynics have questioned whether this young leader from Illinois
ready," he said. "But you know what, the cynics may have spoken but it is the people that will decide."

He invoked Thomas Jefferson's writing the Declaration of Independence at 33, and King giving his "I have a dream" speech at 34, as proof that age is immaterial.

"Since the birth of our nation change has been won by young presidents and young leaders who have shown that experience is not defined by time in Washington and years in office it is defined by wisdom and instinct and vision," he said. "When we choose a president we are electing judgment and character not years on this earth."

Kerry did not refer by name to Hillary Clinton or John Edwards, his 2004 running mate, saying only that the other candidates in the race were "terrific public servants." But he took several implicit jabs at the case Clinton and her husband have been making against Obama. He declared that Obama was "right about the war in Iraq," seeming to counter Bill Clinton's recent charge that Obama's opposition to the war was shaky because he had said at the 2004 convention that he wasn't sure how he would have voted on the war had he been in the Senate at the time. (Obama has said he was only trying to be gracious toward Kerry, who had voted for the war.)

More explicitly, Kerry disputed Hillary Clinton's warning against Obama's "false hopes." "The only charge that rings false is the one that tells you not to hope for a better America," he said. "Don't let anyone tell you to accept the downsizing of the American dream."

For all of Kerry's attempts to speak the language of youthful insurrection -- "Barack Obama isn't gonna just break the mold, together we are going to shatter it into a million pieces" -- he also verged into his characteristic stentorian tone at points, and at a length of 17 minutes, the speech dragged at moments.

But if anything, Kerry's Brahmin formality only served as a foil for the fire that followed, as Obama went into his stump speech. Afterward, several in the crowd said that Kerry's words, combined with Obama's own, had helped them overcome some of their doubts about whether Obama was ready for the job. Beki Crowell, 41, a restaurant owner in Charleston of a biracial background, said that her support was reinforced by the sight of such a diverse crowd turning out for the event.

"I've been on the fence between Hillary and Obama, but I just went over to him" she said. "I had this idea that he had to be more experienced, but what hit me is if you can bring people together like this, and inspire people, then you can make change from a fresh perspective. You just don't see this in South Carolina."

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 10, 2008; 3:06 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
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