A Silver-Haired Superdelegate in Copper Country
By Alec MacGillis
BUTTE, Mont. -- Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton rolled into this legendary copper-mining town Saturday for that night's big state Democratic Party dinner, where they were to address some 4,000 Montanans electrified by the state's suddenly relevant June 3 primary.
The dinner is a big, big deal in Butte, which claims the title of birthplace of the American labor movement and which drew so many immigrants from far-flung lands to its mines that it likes to call itself "Butte, America, not Butte, Montana."
Today, the enormous hole in the ground right next to downtown that is the Berkeley Pit -- 1,780 feet deep and a mile and a half wide -- is being filled back up with old mining fill, the city's handsome 19th-century streets are lined with empty storefronts, and until this week the only bold-face name to visit the town in recent years was actor Matthew McConaughey, here for the funeral of local boy Evil Knievel.
Before heading over to the city civic center, Obama stopped by a local bar, the M&M Cafe, to shake some hands. As he was thronged by well-wishers and gawkers, one white-haired man held back a bit. But Obama made sure to make his way over to shake his hand, because John Melcher is a former U.S. senator and, more importantly, a superdelegate. Just a few days ago, Melcher announced that he was throwing his support to Obama, the second Montana superdelegate to do so.
Obama clasped Melcher's hands and thanked him, and even the septuagenarian former senator seemed a bit flustered by the celebrity candidate. "It's all the way, America!" he shouted out as Obama smiled.
A moment later, Melcher said he had decided to support Obama as much for the quality of his campaign as for the candidate himself. "I've never seen a better campaign," he said. "I'm impressed not just by what he's saying but by the way he's running. This is a great campaign."
One small sign of that, he said, was that the campaign knew to make a visit at M&M's. Melcher's daughter Joan Melcher, who was also in attendance, years ago wrote the definitive book on Montana bars, "Watering Hole: A Users Guide to Montana Bars," and both agreed that M&M ranked near the top. "They did well in picking this one," he said.
Melcher, a veterinarian by profession, said Obama reminded him of John F. Kennedy, whose 1960 campaign coincided with Melcher's first run for the state legislature. But he hoped that, unlike Kennedy, Obama would be able to carry Montana in the general election.
"This guy would be great for Montana, great for the West, and great for the country," he said. "I was enthralled with Kennedy, but we couldn't carry this state for him. Maybe we can correct that and get Montana for this guy."
Maintaining a studied neutrality at the party dinner were the state's top Democrats, Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus and Gov. Brian Schweitzer. In a brief interview, though, Schweitzer may have tipped his hand a bit as he praised Obama for his vigorous primary effort in Western states like his own. "Part of the reason he resonates in the West is that he came to Western states. He had a strategy. He knew he was going to have to slug it out to the end," he said, contrasting that with the Clinton campaign's presumption that the contest would end on Super Tuesday.
One top Clinton supporter in attendance, state Sen. Carol Juneau, cautioned that Montana might turn out to be different than its western neighbors when it came time to vote. For one, she noted, it is holding a primary, not a caucus, a format at which Obama has excelled. "I do think she represents the kind of people we have in Montana -- the unemployed, the people who need extra support," she said.
This much was for sure, said Juneau, who sits on the potentially crucial DNC convention credentials committee: Saturday's spotlight on Montana would cast a lasting glow for the state's Democrats. "This is unheard for Montana," she said. "Everyone's on a political high tonight."
Posted at 9:27 PM ET on Apr 5, 2008
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