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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Obama's message gets a lot louder

The Democrat, known for his calm demeanor, denounces his rivals and their policies with increasing vehemence.

September 11, 2008|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

NORFOLK, VA. — Barack Obama is known for his eloquent speeches, but as he tries to regain his lead in the polls and beat back an energized Republican ticket, he is adding something new to his delivery: volume.

Obama has uncorked some thunderous lines in recent campaign stops, showing a measure of emotion the normally unflappable candidate has seldom displayed. His speeches are now laced with indignation as he argues that anyone who sees John McCain and Sarah Palin as vehicles for change is being duped.

At ear-splitting decibels, he pressed his point Monday that people could pay a heavy price if they make the wrong decision on election day. At stake are constitutional liberties that can mean the difference between freedom and unjustified imprisonment, he told the crowd in Farmington Hills, Mich.

"We may think this is Mohammed the terrorist; it might be Mohammed the cabdriver. You may think it's Barack the bomb-thrower. But it might be Barack the guy running for president," he said, referring to the Bush administration's controversial arrest and detention policies toward terrorism suspects.

Then the loudspeakers really began to quake.

"Don't mock the Constitution. Don't make fun of it! Don't suggest that it's un-American to abide by what the Founding Fathers set up! It's worked pretty well for over 200 years!"

Finally, he said disdainfully of the Republicans: "These people."

Feistiness is what many Democratic elected officials have longed to see. At the Democratic convention in Denver last month, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said Obama needed to show more fight. But he also suggested Obama knew as much. "You're going to see a new, fighting Barack," Rendell predicted.

That they're seeing. Compare the Obama today with what voters saw before the Democratic and Republican conventions: Campaigning in Montana on the July 4 holiday, Obama also talked about the right to challenge one's detention, but said it in terms that were not only milder but also more abstract. Sounding more like the constitutional law professor he once was, he made no attempt to humanize the issue by invoking "Mohammed the cabdriver" or "Barack the bomb-thrower."

"And that's why it's right that we restore habeas corpus," he said at the outdoor rally in Butte. "We send a message to the world that we stand for something here."

In turning up the volume, Obama runs a risk. Should he show too much temper, he perpetuates the sideshow, which could distract voters from the slumping economy, rising gas prices and other issues where he feels he has an advantage.

By contrast, McCain seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Once known as a freewheeling candidate who liked to mix it up with the public and the media, McCain has become far more scripted since he reorganized his campaign in July.

He is increasingly controlled, seldom deviating from his basic stump speech. He rarely presides over unscripted town hall meetings, which he once called "the essence of democracy." And he has not held a news conference in nearly a month.

There are few flashes of his famous temper. During a round-table with seven women at a Philadelphia diner on Wednesday, the Arizona senator had to cope with the loud chanting of nearby Obama protesters.

"O-ba-ma!" they shouted as McCain tried to make a closing statement.

McCain merely grinned, chuckling occasionally as his own supporters tried to drown out the Obama protesters with cheers of "John-Mc-Cain!"

Obama is recalibrating his tone at a time when the race is in flux. Palin's nomination as vice president has shaken up the election in ways Obama campaign aides concede they don't fully understand. Obama professes not to care about poll numbers, but his campaign is well aware that his lead over McCain has evaporated. Within the Democratic Party, some politicians are getting antsy about the latest polling trends, having seen previous Democratic nominees blow leads at the end.

Obama is also confronting an edgier, more aggressive McCain operation. The Republican nominee has gained traction against Obama with an ad likening him to a shallow celebrity. And the McCain campaign is firing back at every provocation, real or imagined.

It's a style Obama says he dislikes. And it showed in his reaction to the "lipstick" dust-up this week.

Obama used a familiar phrase Tuesday to talk about McCain's policies -- putting "lipstick on a pig." Lipstick is a word that Palin had used during her convention speech, when distinguishing pit bulls from hockey moms. Drawing a connection, the McCain campaign said Obama was insulting Palin. They put up a Web video Wednesday suggesting that Obama was sexist.

Obama struck back later in the day at a campaign event at a school here.

"Enough!" he said. "They seize on an innocent remark, try to take it out of context, throw up an outrageous ad because they know that it's catnip for the news media."

Outrage can be an effective campaign tool. But so can humor. Later in the day, Obama was onstage with David Letterman, trading quips.

"Let me ask you a question here," Letterman said. "Have you ever actually put lipstick on a pig?"

"You know," Obama said, as the audience laughed, "the answer would be no. But I think it might be fun to try."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Maeve Reston, traveling with the McCain campaign in Virginia, contributed to this report.

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