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Lifted by their own soaring words

Speeches by Huckabee and Obama in Iowa -- each powerful in a personal way -- carry the winners into N.H.

January 06, 2008|Stephen Braun, Maria L. La Ganga and Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writers

NASHUA, N.H. — Pivoting off their upset wins in the Iowa caucuses, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee are taking on New Hampshire fortified by their stirring -- and markedly different -- victory speeches.

Where Obama's urgent address to his cheering supporters on caucus night was an updated, carefully staged version of the stump speech he has refined over months of repetition, Huckabee's delivery to his own delighted crowd was intimate and folksy, almost shambling in its breeziness and light humor.

But their performances showed both candidates poised and in artful mastery of their words, providing credibility and even some momentum at a critical early moment in the presidential race.

"If you listen to both of them you come away thinking they seem thoughtful and in control of the situation," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "It helps inoculate them against attacks that they're inexperienced by showing them in command of their political rhetoric."

For Illinois Sen. Obama, who hopes to again overtake New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic race, New Hampshire looms as a far more critical test than it does for Huckabee, whose standings in that state's GOP polls are much lower than they were in Iowa and whose campaign organization has yet to tap the same formidable level of support from evangelical Christians.

Even though Obama's caucus-night speech may have been familiar to Iowans and New Hampshire residents who have attended his rallies in recent months, his evocation of "the moment when we finally beat back the policies of fear and doubts and cynicism" appeared to transfix pundits and television viewers alike, quickly echoing across the Internet.

"Huckabee's speech was excellent, but Barack Obama's speech was memorable," veteran former White House advisor David Gergen rhapsodized on CNN's "Larry King Live."

Video of Obama's speech on YouTube has received more than 550,000 hits over the last two days. Though many viewings were evidently prompted by links sent from Obama's campaign, some were probably seen by Web users simply curious about the growing media buzz provoked by his performance.

By comparison, Huckabee's caucus-night speech had been viewed just 21,000 times on YouTube by Saturday night. But the former Arkansas governor's low-key performance, which mixed a populist nod to his campaign's "prairie fire of new hope and zeal" with a quote from Christian thinker G.K. Chesterton, impressed both loyalists and less affiliated viewers.

Karin Hoffman, 57, a nurse from Philadelphia and political independent who said she was leaning toward supporting Huckabee, was not familiar with Chesterton's line that a true soldier fights "not because he hates those who are in front of him, but because he loves those who are behind him."

But she was struck by the sentiment. "It was part of what made the speech so very gracious," she said.

The ability to strike a grace note while touching on campaign leitmotifs was what lifted both victory speeches out of the ordinary, said veteran Republican speechwriter Landon Parvin, whose presidential clients have included Ronald Reagan and both Bushes.

"The important thing in a victory speech isn't so much to rehash all your ideas, it's to be open and welcoming," Parvin said.

On the campaign trail, Obama has been a model of consistency. In Iowa since Christmas, he hewed closely to the themes laid out in a retooled version of his familiar road speech that was written for the compressed stretch just before the caucuses.

Stripped to its essence, the speech became a treatise on hope and change. Laden with preacherly repetition, it raised the possibility of American transformation -- and then, with Obama's victory secured, it became a paean to what his rapturous loyalists had achieved in Iowa.

"You know, they said this day would not come," he told a boisterous crowd at the Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines. "But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do."

On Saturday during a rally at Nashua High School North in Nashua, the stock speech was aimed at primary day, Tuesday. But despite Obama's fatigue and hoarseness, it still had the power to excite.

Robert and Susan Hansen of Pepperell, Mass., crossed the state line Saturday morning to hear Obama -- solely because of the victory speech from Iowa.

"It was unbelievable," said Robert Hansen, who is torn between Obama and Clinton. "A cut below Martin Luther King, but more Bobby Kennedy. A tremendous speech, very moving."

Paul Glastris, editor of Washington Monthly and a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, suggested that Obama's ability to give a "honey of a speech" might have helped him gain traction in the final month before the Iowa caucuses because of the dearth of televised debates and town-hall meetings that have been Clinton's forte.

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