Catering to a voter bloc that overwhelmingly supported him in 2008, President Barack Obama implored a crowd of about 11,000 at the University of Minnesota to vote in next week’s elections.
His roughly 30-minute speech contained harsh partisan rhetoric and a plea for supporters to keep fighting with the enthusiasm he’d inspired two years ago.
"Maybe some people are feeling discouraged and saying, ‘Boy, this is harder than I expected, and maybe all that work I did in 2008, maybe it didn’t make as much of a difference as I’d hoped,’" Obama said. "Don’t let anybody tell you that what you did has not made a difference, that the fight isn’t worth it."
Obama’s Saturday visit was the last on a four-day campaign blitz that included Oregon, Washington state, Nevada and California. The tour was the longest during his time as president. He was here to rally with DFL gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton.
He was the fourth sitting president to visit campus and the first to hold a public event since William Howard Taft in 1911.
Obama highlighted successes in the form of major legislation supported primarily by Democrats, including the federal stimulus bill, health care reform and financial overhaul.
He called passing those policies over the past two years a "hard fight" and compared the progress to historical advances like the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage.
His message of unabashed hope from 2008 was tempered with political realism.
"Two years ago I told you that change is not easy," Obama said. "Power does not give up without a fight."
He called the path to progress in the first half of his term "grinding it out."
After seeing Obama when he visited Minneapolis last September, Lakeville resident Patti Snider said she thought the president seemed more tired than he did a year ago.
"That could just be his schedule," she said. "He was still inspirational and still genuine."
Obama walked on stage after a brief introduction from Dayton.
His first words, "Hello Minnesota, hello Gophers!" were met with screams of delight, but his famous 2008 rally cry of, "Yes we can" only broke out once during the rally.
"It was very impressive," said University junior Katie Wendt. "His ability to give a speech is amazing."
"I know that he’s been fighting for the people of this state his entire career," Obama said.
Dayton leads his Republican opponent Tom Emmer 41 percent to 34 percent, according to a new Star Tribune poll with a 3.9 point margin of error. The poll, which included 12 percent undecided respondents, surveyed 999 likely voters.
If Democrats experience turnout numbers similar to 2008, Dayton’s chances improve, Obama said. But traditionally, fewer voters show up to the polls for midterm elections.
Minnesota voter turnout was 78 percent in 2008, an 18-point increase over 2006.
A sense of urgency, with little more than a week until Election Day, was evident at the rally.
Before Obama appeared, a host of Democratic politicians including U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken whipped up the crowd.
Franken called himself the "poster boy of close elections" after winning his Senate seat by a margin of 312 votes.
"I know firsthand that every vote counts, and that’s why I need all of you" to focus on campaigning, Franken said. "If any of you have families, ignore them."
Reminding the crowd that the current economic meltdown occurred under a Republican administration, Franken likened the country to a car careening down a "steep embankment."
As former President George W. Bush bailed from the driver’s seat, in Franken’s metaphor, Obama hopped in and eventually steered the car in the right direction.
Obama later borrowed the image, saying the Republicans have already had a chance to steer the country.
"You can’t have the keys back; you don’t know how to drive!" he said.
Heading into office, Obama hoped to work with Republicans to solve the financial crisis that began under their leadership, he said. But that didn’t happen.
Instead of bipartisan cooperation, "the other side was betting on amnesia" from the American public as to how the crisis began.
Obama defined this election as a choice between moving forward and going in reverse.
"A different atmosphere"
Gustavus Adolphus College student Craig Nordquist had seen Obama before in Chicago. He said it was harder to hear and see at Saturday’s event due to the "awkward setup " of the stage. Nordquist said he enjoyed the rally, even though his attendance wasn’t driven by his politics.
Nordquist said he is planning to vote in the upcoming elections, but he’s undecided. The event gave him a chance to learn more about some of the Democratic candidates.
"It’s just exposing me to a different atmosphere," he said. "I got a feel for where the Democrats stand on the issues."
University history senior Tom Raley said he was put off by the partisan nature of the rally but understood Obama was on campus to campaign.
"He’s a good politician," Raley said. "He told everyone what they wanted to hear."
Although Obama touted the recent withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, Patti Snider from Lakeville said she wished the president had addressed the war in Afghanistan.
Forecasted rain forced the event to be moved from Northrop Mall to the University Field House. The rain never materialized, but the venue change did limit the number of people who were able to see Obama in person. Attendees who did not make it in the 7,000-occupancy Field House were sent to an overflow area in the Sports Pavilion where the event was simulcast.
The late switch forced University police to redo security plans, but police Chief Greg Hestness said the day went off without any major problems.
Hestness said security responded to about a dozen medical incidents, most involving exhaustion and dehydration. No arrests were made, either for threats against the president or disruptive activity.
People started queuing up for the rally early Saturday morning. More than 200 people were waiting by 9 a.m. At its longest, the line stretched more than a mile from the University Recreation Center to Washington Avenue Bridge, snaking through the Scholar’s Walk and Northrop Mall.
Some simply stood and waited while others read books or ate pizzas they had delivered to the line.
Joe Mollen, who graduated from the University in 2009, said the line’s "glacial pace" was frustrating.
After more than an hour in line, Mollen and his friends found themselves in front of Vincent Hall and considered leaving.
A group of four University students saw the event as a business opportunity. They sold gold T-shirts that featured Obama as the Gophers head football coach, wearing a headset with the caption "Obama 4 Coach."
The students thought of the idea over bagels Tuesday morning, said Cody Holm, an entrepreneurship and marketing senior.
"We thought, ‘Hey, Obama’s coming. [Head coach Tim] Brewster just got fired. We should capitalize on this,' " said Max Robinson, an entrepreneurship and marketing junior.
They started the day with 425 shirts, but by 1 p.m. only 10 were left.
"We’re going to sell out," Robinson said.
Originally from Valencia, Spain, Laura Minano said she attended the rally for the chance to see the leader of another country.
The event was tough to follow because she couldn’t hear well, but she said Obama spoke passionately about the problems facing America and created a sense of unity in the audience.
"The way he speaks really brings people together."
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