Obama tries to rekindle hope

BRIDGEPORT – Barack Obama came to Connecticut on Saturday looking to recapture the magic of 2008, when voters thronged to polls here to help him carry the state and Jim Himes unseat New England’s only Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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Cameras flash as Barack Obama greets supporters in Bridgeport. (Uma Ramiah)

Now, as a struggling president looking to rev up the Democratic base on the last weekend before election day, Obama fended off a few hecklers and told an enthusiastic crowd to ignore projections of mid-term losses that are expected to cost Democrats their majority in the House.

“You’ve heard it all from the pundits. You’ve been hearing it on TV, the wisdom that says you can’t overcome cynicism in politics. You can’t over come the special interests. You can’t take on the biggest challenges,” Obama said. “In 2008, they said you couldn’t elect a skinny guy with a funny name.”

Obama smiled and paused as laughter rippled through the Arena at Harbor Yard, the waterfront venue off I-95 for minor-league hockey and Fairfield University basketball.

“And just like you did in 2008, in three days you’ve got a chance to say, what?” Obama asked.

Like rock fans dying to sing an old hit, they screamed, “Yes, we can!”

Democrats hope the energy will spill out into the streets for the last three days of a difficult season for the party that controls the White and Congress. His presence in Connecticut was encouraging for Democrats, but also a sign that the deep-blue state is not reliably Democratic this year.

Obama took the stage like it was 2008.

“Hello, Bridgeport!” the president cried out, waving to the crowd. He wore a suitcoat but no tie over his pale blue shirt. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“Yes, we can!” chanted the crowd. “Yes, we can!”

He quickly got to business, mentioning the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate and governor, Richard Blumenthal and Dan Malloy. Each addressed the crowd. But the emphasis was on Himes, the freshman congressman struggling to hang onto a seat that was in Republican hands for nearly half a century before his election.

Himes introduced Obama, and it was Himes with greeted him on stage with a handshake and a hug, a moment he hopes will bring some energy to a year that lacks the enthusiasm of 2008.

“Though Barack Obama is not on the ballot, all that he stands for, all that he believes in, all that he seeks to accomplish for all of us, those things are very, very much on the ballot,” Himes said.

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AID activists heckle Obama. (Mark Pazniokas)

But Obama was reminded five minutes into his speech that some Democratic constituencies are impatient for him to deliver on the promise they saw and promises they heard two years ago.

Obama was interrupted by college-age hecklers demanding more funding for the global fight against AIDS. They chanted, “Keep the promise,” and unfurled banners with the same message. The protesters were booed.

“Excuse me! Excuse me, young people!” Obama said, trying to regain control. “These folks have been, you’ve been appearing at every rally we’ve been doing. And we’re funding global AIDS, and the other side is not. So I don’t know why you think this is a useful…”

He was drowned out by cheers.

“I think it would make a lot more sense to go to the folks who aren’t interested in funding global AIDS,” he said.

The protesters, some of whom wore Yale and Harvard sweatshirts were escorted from the arena to a chorus of boos.

“Look, listen up everybody!” Obama said. “First of all, this is one of the great things about Democrats is we always like to be heard. And that’s a good thing. That’s part of what this democracy is all about.”

Obama said global AIDS is very important. But he suggested the Democratic party is more likely to act on the issue. In an answer that he could easily give to others who say Obama has been slow on some issues, such as working to repeal the restrictions on gays in the military, Obama said he had clear priorities.

“We’re not going to be able to do anything unless we get the economy fixed, unless we can put people back to work, unless folks feel more confident about the future. It ‘s going to be hard to move forward on all these initiatives,” Obama said.

He reminded his audience of what he inherited: A rapidly failing economy and a fragile financial services sector.

“An economy that was shrinking is now growing again,” he said.

Outside the arena before the rally, Ron Pavluvsik stood with a sign that said,  “Obama: you’re fired!”

“I have to show some opposition to Obama since we have all these sheep over here,” Pavluvsik, pointing to the line of thousands waiting to get into the arena.

More typical were Joan and Vincent Carrafiello.

“We’re here to show support for the president,” said Joan Carrafiello. “We think he’ll bring victory to Himes and rejuvenate the election like he did in 2008.”

“I like everything about Obama,” said her husband, Vincent. “The health care reform, the stimulus – just look at the Merritt construction and all those young men and women who have jobs now.”

The couple had waited in line since 7:15 a.m., more than five hours before the doors were scheduled to open to the public.

Maggie Kinsella-Shaw, 19, said, “A lot of people have lost that feeling of enthusiasm they had in 2008. So this was important.”

Donald Onar of Bridgeport stood on his toes after the rally, straining for a glimpse of the Presidents’ motorcade as it left the arena.

He wore a green sweat suit and clutched a plastic cup full of Dunkin’ Donuts munchkins.

“That man’s got it, he’s got the legend,” he said. “Republicans don’t know anything about that.”

Pastor Deborah Harvey and Elder Joan Phang of Immanuel Church in Brideport stood in line for four hours to get in to see Obama speak.

“The president was coming to our little town of Bridgeport? We had to be here,” Harvey said. “We want to take this experience back to our church and inspire other people to vote. And we want that inspiration from 2008 again.”

“He’s doing a good job, he’s trying his best,” said Phang. “He couldn’t fix it all in 18 months.”