Paul Wellman

He came. He spoke. And he also collected a load of cash.

In his first visit to the Central Coast as a presidential hopeful, Barack Obama had a busy Saturday in Santa Barbara, beginning with a high-energy rally on City College’s West Campus Lawn and ending with a fundraiser at the Montecito estate of talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. The last event is estimated to have brought in about $3.45 million. Between the two appearances he also made a stop at the home of political activist Nancy Koppelman, where a private luncheon for about 100 people netted Obama’s campaign an additional $230,000.

By the time Obama was flying into Santa Barbara from Portland at 9:30 Saturday morning, crowds were already lining up at City College, eagerly awaiting their main man’s arrival, which was scheduled for noon. Local, state, and national media packed the risers reserved for their cameras, and the crowd quickly swelled to more than 4,000 people. The campus provided a beautiful backdrop for Obama’s speech, which was filled with the message that’s become the backbone of his campaign: hope.

With McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” playing over the loudspeakers, Obama took the stage earlier than scheduled, wearing a white, open-collared shirt and dark khaki pants. The senator spoke for almost 40 minutes, touching on all the hot topics-the war in Iraq (“If we don’t end [the war] without George Bush, the first thing I will do as President of the United States is bring an end to this war”), education (“Isn’t it about time we make college degrees affordable and accessible even if your parents aren’t rich?”), and healthcare (Obama pledged to have universal health care legislation passed by the end of his first term).

All the while, Obama underscored his campaign’s theme. “I don’t accept that the American dream is a part of the past,” he said. With legislation almost entirely driven by special interests and lobbyists, he said a fundamental change in American politics is necessary. “[People] are sick and tired of being sick and tired. They’re tired of an administration that seems to be riddled with incompetence.”

And he called on those at the rally to join his grassroots campaign. “American people aren’t the problem, American people are the answer,” he said. Before the Illinois senator took the stage, his California campaign director Mitchell Schwartz gave the crowd a peek inside their strategy, saying the only other Democrat who could run a national campaign is New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, whom Obama is trailing in most polls. But, Schwartz warned, polls aren’t that important, pointing out that by this time during the 1992 presidential race, Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, hadn’t yet announced his candidacy.

The luncheon at Koppelman’s was followed by the event people have been talking about for months. Ticketholders traveled from near and far, from Michigan, the District of Columbia, Indiana, Boston, and Los Angeles, to take a bus from Earl Warren Showgrounds to a grassy meadow at Oprah’s Montecito home.

Celebrity spotters reported that the guests included Forrest Whitaker, Ellen Pompeo, Sidney Poitier, former basketball players Bill Russell and Charles Oakley, music producer Russell Simmons, and director George Lucas. Only a handful of Santa Barbara County residents attended, including philanthropists Michael and Anne Towbes, real estate agent John Sener, author Patricia Bisch, painter Arden Rose, and public relations consultant Jonatha King. Stevie Wonder, just a few weeks removed from a Santa Barbara Bowl concert, was back in town and provided the musical entertainment for the evening. According to attendees, rows and rows of green and white “Obama ’08” blankets were laid out for guests to sit on and take home as parting gifts.

Before introducing Obama, Winfrey-who stated on Good Morning America Monday morning that she hosted 1,657 people-told the crowd she hadn’t supported politics for many years because there hadn’t been anyone who had inspired her until Obama came along. She spoke “from her heart,” according to one attendee, about Obama’s authenticity, convictions, honesty, and commitment. She also told the crowd the $2,300 they each paid to attend was just the entry fee. “There is a lot of work to be done,” one person quoted her as saying.

Obama spoke for 20-30 minutes, again emphasizing the idea of hope. After his speech he and his wife, Michelle, took seats on the lawn and rocked the night away with the rest of the crowd, indulging anyone who approached him with attentive conversation.


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