Obama’s October Surprise

With less than two weeks to go, he’s competitive in Indiana.

Barack Obama

INDIANAPOLIS—When Barack Obama took the stage at noon at the end of Obelisk Square downtown, he faced two city blocks of people, stretching for almost one-quarter of a mile between rows of trees turning from green to yellow. These weren’t just people who’d stopped by on their way to get a sandwich. Going to political rallies these days is a chore. You have to go through Secret Service screening, and once you’ve entered the fenced-in area, you can’t go far. Still, some people arrived at 4:30 a.m., wearing their Colts knit caps and carrying blankets, to get a good spot and wait for nearly eight hours.

I know Obama is supposed to be the Ice Man, with special powers of equanimity. And maybe the swarms of people get old after a while. Still, especially at the end of campaigns, politicians tend to lavish special attention on their crowds—and revel in the adulation they receive in return. They try not to let on at the time. But after the race is over, they hearken back to that one moment when the cheers were so loud or so quiet that they got a hint of how things would go on Election Day.

If Obama wins, maybe he’ll look back on Thursday, Oct. 23, in Indianapolis as that moment. It’s not just the size of the crowd of 35,000 that was significant—heck, he saw nearly three times as large a gathering in St. Louis last week. What’s significant was that even in Indiana, a historically red state, he was tied in the polls with John McCain less than two weeks before Election Day.

McCain was in Florida on Thursday for the first day of his “Joe the Plumber Tour,” continuing his attack on Obama’s tax and spending policies. Obama aides say the Joe the Plumber strategy isn’t working beyond the Republican base. Beyond that, they say, people don’t think that Joe’s story is their story, as the McCain campaign argues. Perhaps, but Obama’s remarks were so clearly directed at rebutting McCain on the issue of taxes, McCain’s populist appeal is posing at least some kind of threat.

McCain uses Joe the Plumber to argue that Obama doesn’t look out for regular people. Obama counters by arguing that McCain’s tax cuts will only go to fund corporations. Obama also presents himself as a fighter for working people. “Who’s looking out for the teachers, the steel workers, and the teamsters? That’s the president I want to be,” he said. He reiterated that, under his plan, taxes will go up only for people who make more than $250,000. When he asked everyone who made less than that to raise their hands, so many went up that it looked like the Colts had just scored a go-ahead touchdown.

If Obama wins, one key will have been how he won the tax issue. Just a month ago, when voters in the Wall Street Journal poll were asked which candidate would be “better on taxes,” McCain was favored 41 percent to 37 percent. That’s not the case anymore. In the latest Wall Street Journal poll, Obama has a 14-point lead (48 percent to 34 percent) over McCain on this question. That’s an 18-point swing.

This suggests Obama may have been able to shake the rap that has dogged Democrats since Walter Mondale promised to raise taxes in 1984—but it also says that the Obama campaign has been very effective in delivering a message. Obama has been able to change voters’ minds over time. McCain’s many gambits have been ineffective, which doesn’t bode well for his ability to execute the inside-straight he’ll have to manage to win 270 electoral votes.

And after all his talk about tax policy, Obama made sure to give the crowd some of the soaring rhetoric that had probably brought most of them out. At the end of his speech Obama returned to the theme of political unification that launched his candidacy nearly four years ago at the Democratic Convention.

“There are no real or fake parts of this country,” he said, a reference to a Sarah Palin speech in North Carolina in which she said she was happy to be in “the real America” and praised “the pro-America areas of this great nation.” Obama continued: “We are not separated by the pro-America and anti-America parts of this nation—we all love this country, no matter where we live or where we come from. There are patriots who supported this war in Iraq and patriots who opposed it, patriots who believe in Democratic policies and those who believe in Republican policies. The men and women from Indiana and all across America who serve on our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a red America or a blue America—they have served the United States of America.”

By the end, the crowd’s hands were up in the air again.