Frying Fish, Pressing Flesh
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- People hoisted cell phones high in the air, looking for a clear shot. Blinding lights from television cameras scoped about. The noise level went from loud to LOUD.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) had arrived at Rep. Jim Clyburn's (D-S.C.) annual fish fry, held in a parking garage in the state's capital city. Chants of "O-BAM-A" broke out as the nation's newest political phenomenon, clad in a white dress shirt and dark pants, waded through a crush of people just hoping to get a glimpse of him. Organizers estimated more than 2,000 people turned out to eat whiting, drink Budweiser from cans, sweat, and hear from the leading candidates for president
As Obama's throng reached the center of the jam-packed lot another roar broke out.
At the head of a cavalcade of supporters hefting "Clinton Country" signs was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). For a moment it looked like the two frontrunners for the Democratic nomination might physically collide, but, either by some sort of prearranged agreement or just natural political instincts Clinton zigged, Obama zagged and the throngs of humanity surrounding the two snaked past one another without incident.
Minutes later, it was former Sen. John Edwards's (N.C.) turn. The former Senator entered the parking garage at the head of a drum line who through sheer volume made sure that the crowd knew Edwards had arrived. (It was a mixed blessing for Edwards though as he struggled to hear over the din as he moved through the crowd.)
The three leading candidates -- as well as Sen. Joe Biden (Del.), Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.) -- made their way to the a makeshift stage to join Clyburn, who were a blue t-shirt bearing the inscription: "Jim Clyburn: Our Congressman."
Clyburn, clearly relishing the moment, gave what seemed to be stirring introductions for each of the candidates. (The Fix, jammed near the press riser toward the back of garage couldn't make out what Clyburn was saying over the noise.)
Biden was the first candidate to speak. He said hello to the crowd and handed the mike back to Clyburn -- perhaps a lingering remnant of his practiced brevity from Thursday night's Democratic debate in Orangeburg.
Not surprisingly, the speeches got progressively longer after that as each candidate took time to praise Clyburn before offering a few thoughts on their own candidacy.
Edwards gave a mini-stump speech of sorts, insisting that "we bear a responsibility when it comes to issues of race and equality."
Clinton asked the audience whether they were "ready for a change in America," a "question" that drew loud applause.
But, it was Obama who seemed most at home on the stage. He delivered the best line of the night about the candidates on the stage: "We're all trying out for quarterback but we're on the same team." And he used his brief remarks to push the message of change and transforming politics that has served him so well up to this point. It didn't hurt that he was the final speaker.
Most of the candidates ducked out soon afterwards. But Biden stuck around (and stuck around) -- enjoying the focused press attention accorded to him since the bigger names weren't around.
Fifteen feet from where Biden held court, the "electric slide" broke out. Fifteen feet from that long lines of folks waited for their chance to nosh on the fried fish. Political operatives mixed with locals who mixed with reporters.
A memorable night all around. And one that any lover of politics couldn't help but leave with a smile on his (or her) face.
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