St. Louis rally draws largest Obama crowd in campaign so far

Saturday, October 18, 2008 | 10:00 p.m. CDT; updated 11:08 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Barack Obama ended the day in Kansas City, where he spoke for about a half hour. Other speakers included Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and others.

ST. LOUIS — At Barack Obama's rally here on Saturday, the Democrat preached to the choir - mostly.

An estimated 100,000 people, confirmed by his campaign to be the largest crowd for an Obama event in the U.S., spilled onto the expansive grounds under the Gateway Arch. They appeared to be mostly ardent supporters of the Illinois senator, shouting "O-bam-AHH, O-bam-AHH" to his ideas on easing the nation's economic crisis and lifting the middle class.

The second largest Obama crowd was 75,000 in Portland, Ore., in May, said Nick Shapiro, spokesman for the main campaign in Chicago. But it was still smaller than the 200,000 Obama drew this past summer in Berlin, Germany.

The crowd included people like 37-year-old Thesina Strother of St. Louis County, a financial manager for AT&T, who wants to go back to college, but can't afford to, and retired coal miner and farmer Allen Meadows, 63, of rural Benton, Ill., who said hard times have eviscerated his and his retired-school-teacher wife's pensions.

"I've always thought we could muddle through a Republican administration, but I don't know if we'll recover from this one. He's done so much damage," he said of President Bush.

Obama, on the other hand, "makes sense, and his policies are more in line with the middle class."

A number of undecided voters also showed up for Obama's roughly one-hour speech.

Independent voters Randy and Christi Butts of Kearney, Neb., came to the rally with their Democratic daughter, 25-year-old Ashlee Folsom of Kansas City. Both said they're still uncommitted, but wanted to listen, and were leaning toward Obama.

They say their custom home building business has been hurt by the credit crisis, and they're paying too much for health insurance.

"I'm sick of the mess we're in," said Christi Butts, 53. "I'm worried for our country, for the next generation."

The size of the crowd exceeded earlier estimates, prompting Obama to say, "What a spectacular sight. All I can say is, Wow!"

He told the story of meeting a "die-hard Republican" who owned a diner where his campaign stopped for a piece of pie in Georgetown, Ohio.

"I said, 'how's your business?'" Obama said.

"Not so good," the owner replied. "My customers can't afford to eat out."

"Sir," Obama told the man. "Why don't you vote for a Democrat this time. We can't do any worse than (the Republicans) have."

Vendors lined along Memorial Drive outside the Arch grounds did a brisk business selling merchandise such as Obama hats, buttons, towels, shirts and bobbleheads.

"It's the Obama Action Figure," vendor Bomani Tyehimba, 49, of Cincinnati told customers. "He'll balance the budget in a single bound, end the war, cut taxes and give us health care."

Jerry and Katie Roberts of Ohio, who were visiting St. Louis, picked the wrong day to visit the Arch. National Park Service rangers advised them to come back Sunday.

The politically divided couple - she's for Obama, he's an independent leaning toward McCain - said the trick to staying married is not trying to persuade the other's politics.

"We joke about canceling each other out," she said.

Missouri, a critical swing state, has been getting lots of presidential attention lately.

The Obama campaign announced Saturday that President Bill Clinton will host a rally Monday night at Kirkwood High School in suburban St. Louis. Republican John McCain is scheduled to make two stops in Missouri on Monday.

Polls show Obama and McCain in a virtual dead heat in Missouri.

St. Louis police said there were no major disturbances or arrests at the rally.

One uncomfortable moment was when Obama supporters shouted the candidate's name loudly, and repeatedly, as they walked past supporters of the anti-abortion group, Defenders of the Unborn, who were holding signs bearing photos of fetuses.

Protester Jerry Jacobsmeyer, 66, of St. Louis said abortion is the group's No. 1 issue.

"Life is our first civil right," he said. "What good is health care and a job if you don't have life?"

Later that evening in Kansas City, Obama drew thousands more for a rally at the Liberty Memorial, where he spoke for about a half-hour. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Reps. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., and Ike Skelton, D-Mo., also spoke briefly before Obama.

Nancy Morell, 50, came about 200 miles from her home in Hartville in southwest Missouri to hear Obama for the first time. Morell, who has an ice cream truck business with her husband, Ted Morell, 56, said she supported Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., earlier, but now plans to vote for Obama. Health care is her main concern.

"Our governor cut off my health care last year when he made those Medicaid cuts," Morell said. "I think Obama will give health care to the poor people and the middle class."

Rebecca Ford, 25, of Kansas City, said she has been looking for work in customer service for months. She said she would vote for Obama because she thinks he would be best at dealing with the economy.

"I'm not sure he can help," she said. "But I'm hoping."

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