Wednesday, October 22, 2008 By Aaron Brown
On Tuesday night, Sen. Hillary Clinton, stumping for Obama, spoke to a crowd of 4,600 (fire department estimate) at the Hibbing Memorial Building in the heart of the Iron Range. I'd estimate the crowd was similar in size and enthusiasm to the crowd that gathered four years ago for then-VP nominee John Edwards. Tonight's crowd was visibly larger than the 2004 crowd and equally enthusiastic. It was an enormous event by Iron Range standards and, more important, it featured a pitch perfect message for Iron Range voters.
This is the view of the crowd from my vantage point a few feet in front of the podium. The other side of the arena was equally full, as was the floor. In 2004, the floor and only one side of the bleachers were full.
It was a quintessentially Iron Range political rally in that it included a fiery speech from State Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia) to lead off the event. At one heated point, Rukavina blared "If we can bail out those pigs on Wall Street, we can help working people all across this country!" That's not politically correct but up here this just means that the show is beginning. State. Sen. David Tomassoni then spoke, invoking as many hockey references as possible. Then State Rep. and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich gave the best of the local speeches. He set a tone of how Obama represents a united America, like the one Iron Rangers have known and served for generations, while John McCain has used tactics of division in this campaign.
After Sertich, U.S. Rep Jim Oberstar spoke. Oberstar can deliver a great rally speech. This one started a little low, but picked up. My favorite part, even though it dates our congressman, was his telling of a story from when he attended the 1948 rally for Harry Truman at the same venue. Oberstar said that, back then, a Slovenian union organizer told the crowd that wolves can change their fur, but they don't change their minds. Those Republicans are the wolves. That's a classic Iron Range political argument. It's a bit of a fallacy, but it's the sort of thing Iron Rangers respond to. Fact is, over history Iron Rangers have poured the guts into military service and the hard work of mining enough iron ore to drive the industrial revolution. And our ancestors did all this for a pittance while insisting upon a good education for their kids. That's what drives the political ideology of the Iron Range. Hard work should guarantee fairness for workers.
After the local speakers, Sen. Amy Klobuchar addressed the crowd. A couple of notables here. One, Klobuchar effectively connected her Iron Range heritage with an emotional message about how the national economic issues play out in this area. But even more interesting was when Al Franken appeared at the edge of the stage during Amy's speech. She pointed him out and the crowd gave him an ovation similar to the one they would later give Hillary. Al still has work to do in northern Minnesota, but any evidence that he is behind among DFL faithful was totally absent in that moment.
Then, Hillary Clinton emerged from backstage to the expected thunderous ovation. She was introduced by John Flynn, a Hibbing resident who I happen to know. He's a Vietnam vet who spent a career in the mines. After retirement, his health care was gutted and he had to go back to work. John's story accurately portrayed the economic situation many Iron Rangers face right now.
Hillary's speech was good, hitting an ideal blend of Range issues: health care, pension security, schools and, her best line, "Jobs, Baby, Jobs." (An obvious take on the GOP slogan, "Drill, baby, drill" which should be considered the worst political slogan of our time). Notably, Hillary devoted a section of her speech to the Iron Range, reminding of its role in shaping the nation both literally in terms of its iron ore in the American steel of the last century, but also politically in delivering election after election to candidates willing to fight for the working and middle classes. That was a step above your average stump speaker, and clearly showed some preparation by Hillary and the Obama campaign.
As I've written before, Hillary's appearance on the Iron Range was very fitting for this final stage of her new, unexpected role as campaign surrogate. During the Minnesota caucus last February Clinton did very well on the Iron Range, holding much stronger support here than she received in the rest of the state. Even tonight I could overhear women in the crowd lamenting their disappointment that Hillary didn't win the primaries. But by the end of the speeches, they were cheering as loudly as everyone else when Barack Obama's name was mentioned. Clinton's speech here was clearly designed to connect with the Iron Range people and excite party faithful to commit the time and effort needed to turn out voters over the next two weeks. On that front, Clinton's presentation and the evening as a whole were a resounding success.
I was pretty darn sure Obama would carry Minnesota before tonight, but I wasn't sure that the Iron Range would remain as strong DFL as usual. Today, I am fully convinced that whatever factors might have been holding back Range voters from sticking with pocketbook issues during this election will be overcome by Nov. 4. The GOP didn't even manage to stage a presence in Hibbing during this very high profile rally. The McCain campaign's press response focused on gun issues, taxes and "redistribution of wealth." That's all fair game, but it's been tried here before, to no avail. In contrast, the DFL event -- from start to finish -- managed to combine the populist rhetoric that resonates with Iron Range pro-labor crowds and an optimistic outlook for the future world our kids will inherit. Clearly, tonight was a message victory for the DFL.
This was a good night for the Barack Obama and Al Franken on the Iron Range. I may not be an objective source for this thought, but I'm no stooge and I don't see anything that would indicate DFL electoral woes after what happened here Tuesday night. Let the hand-wringing end and the work begin.
UPDATE: Here is the local media roundup. I also posted more pictures.