"When I was talking to my friends, it was never 'Ben Cardin's coming,' it was 'Barack Obama's coming!'" said Thea Nielsen, 20, a junior from Amherst, Mass. She wasn't too interested in hearing Cardin and was registered to vote in her hometown, anyway.
For many potential voters, Cardin's 20 years of experience in Congress don't rate as highly as a speech Obama gave in 2004 - the electrifying keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. "He's cool. He's popular," said John Fatur, 24, a junior from Carroll County. "To have him here makes it seem like this is a big deal."
But whether the excitement over Obama will send voters to the polls for Cardin is harder to say. A voter registration table outside the amphitheater did little business yesterday. And after Obama spoke, students headed for the exits even as retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes implored them to support Cardin.
Obama demonstrated an instinctive sense for this crowd. He acknowledged how young people can feel alienated from government and the political process. But he reminded them that politics also brought about women's rights and civil rights. Blending humor, populism and outrage at the Bush administration, he provoked loud and prolonged cheers. "I don't know about you, but I've had enough," he said, reciting a litany of grievances.
"We love you!" someone shouted, and Obama flashed a sly grin as the applause grew louder. He'll need that love if he decides to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. In that way, his appearance may not have been entirely selfless. Those students cheering him could become his foot soldiers in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The adulation of Maryland's youth for Obama came across even more in the TV coverage of the speech. But America's youth are notoriously fickle; 2008 is lightyears away to them. And soldiering through Iowa and New Hampshire requires a bit more dedication than blowing off class to hear a speech.
There's been a minor kerfuffle over John McWhorter's contention that Obama has been getting all this attention because of the color of his skin. Maybe.
But we've seen this kind of adulation for keynoters before.
Ann Richards became a star overnight after her 1988 keynote address. All her recent obituaries mentioned that speech as a defining moment. Yet Richards' political career went no further.
Mario Cuomo's speech was similarly lauded. I seem to recall Cuomo with a line of courtiers out the door, beseeching him to pick up the Presidential mantle for the Dems before Clinton emerged as the frontrunner. And that was about the last we heard of Cuomo.
I think so much importance was given to those speeches--and to Obama's--because those were pretty dark years for the Democrats. That silver foot in the mouth sure did buck up the base. But it didn't affect the election. That's because no amount of snappy one-liners could possibly make Michael Dukakis appear interesting. And Cuomo's flatulent rhetoric couldn't make Walter Mondale more impressive either.
Compare the charismatic senator from Illinois with the empty suit from Massachusetts for whom he delivered the keynote address. The young and telegenic Obama became a star, partly because he was the polar opposite of the haughty, French-looking Kerry.
Barack Obama gives good speech. And he's cute as a button. I suspect, however, that that's as far as it will go. At least for 2008.