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At Home in Chicago, Obama Rally a Far Cry From Democrats’ 2008 Triumphs

CHICAGO | As campaign 2010 moved into its final hours this weekend, the president still had to campaign for the Democratic Party in one important place: his home state of Illinois.

Alex Giannoulias, the Democrat hoping to win the president’s old U.S. Senate seat, is in trouble. So is Pat Quinn, the sitting Democrat who took over the governor’s office when Rod Blagojevich was forced to resign. The Democrats’ trouble runs all up and down the ticket in Illinois, a state that has turned steadily bluer over the years, but shows signs of reverting to its traditional purple on Tuesday.

While news outlets, (including the NewsHour), were largely focused on Saturday’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” with Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, party faithful gathered at a park in the heart of the University of Chicago campus. Both the president and the first lady once worked at the university, and the family’s home is just a few blocks to the north.

Saturday was a glorious fall day, and the rally took place as the sun was setting. A crane trailed an enormous American flag, and banks of speakers alternated between country, blues, R&B and pop ballads. A line of students and families from across the city and suburbs stretched far down the green parkway, past the stately Gothic spires of the university toward the Medical Center and Washington Park, once envisioned as the home of the main venue for the 2016 Olympics.

The park had to be fenced, cordoned and laden with security. It is a sign of modern American politics that the people of this area can’t simply walk into the park, listen to the speeches and walk home. The vast crowd must be channeled through a narrow entrance way, guided through the magnetometers, and into the fields of the Midway Plaisance, as the park is known.

Whatever party, whatever election year, it’s fun to watch people getting settled for a long night of cheering their favored politicians or simply getting the chance to see a sitting president in the flesh. Along with some of the state’s biggest names in politics, the crowd was also eager to see Common, the South Side-born, Grammy-winning hip hop artist, who took the stage to entertain the crowd well before the president appeared.

For better or worse, it was the Obama coalition that could be found standing on the Midway — suburban liberals, Latinos, college students, blacks of all economic and social strata. Disaffection, disappointment, lack of interest — name a reason, the Democratic Party has little confidence the various tribes that gave the president a sizable victory in 2008 will show up this time. Chicagoans of all shapes and sizes hauled out their ’08 memorabilia … the prevalence of hats, sweatshirts, T-shirts and buttons from the presidential year showed this crowd still backed the president.

This would be the president’s third stop of the day, after rallies in Bridgeport, Conn., and Philadelphia. The only secure Democrat on the stage was Mayor Richard M. Daley, who won’t be running for re-election after 21 years on the fifth floor of City Hall. Giannoulias, the sitting Illinois treasurer, is running neck-and-neck with Rep. Mark Kirk, struggling to deny the GOP the symbolic victory of grabbing the president’s old seat. Pat Quinn, the veteran political reformer who rose to the governor’s office with the departure of Rod Blagojevich, is running several points behind State Sen. Bill Brady.

When the president finally took the stage the message was subdued compared to those delivered in Illinois during the exuberance of the presidential year. Mr. Obama joked about being able to sleep in his own bed, conceded 2010 was a tough political year, and exhorted the crowd to vote on Tuesday. He assured the crowd it could “still overcome the big money and the big challenges.”

The fact that the president came here 72 hours before Election Day is all the confirmation you need that the Democrats can’t take anything for granted in 2010.

All the arriving guests were handed lists of voters to call after the rally, and a script for telephone outreach. It would be interesting to know how many of those lists resulted in phone calls, and how many ended up picked up by Chicago Park District workers cleaning up after the rally.

For all the warmth toward the president on the Midway Saturday night, 2008 suddenly seemed like a very long time ago.

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