President Barack Obama drew an overflow crowd to a rally Wednesday in a picturesque Virginia college town, just as he's done at least twice before, but some of the magic seemed to be gone.
As a candidate in 2008, he campaigned in downtown Charlottesville's cavernous, tented downtown amphitheater and packed it with thousands who screamed themselves hoarse on a crisp autumn evening. Two years later, he returned on an even colder October night in a vain effort to bail out one-term Democratic U.S. Rep Tom Perriello's re-election bid.
Now, with polls showing the quest for Virginia's 13 electoral votes virtually deadlocked between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, thousands again queued two or three abreast under a hot sun in a line that stretched for nearly a half mile down Charlottesville's tony brick-paved pedestrian mall.
But the mood among those who gathered Wednesday was different this time.
Obama supporter William Proffitt, a University of Virginia junior raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., was stuck in a line at least four blocks away from the nTelos Wireless Pavilion, intent on waiting it out. After all, the line behind him was growing at a rate of about 30 feet every minute. By 1 p.m., it snaked more than eight blocks.
“This is the first time I've ever seen a president in person,” the political studies major said. “But I'm not as excited as I was four years ago. It no longer has the distinctiveness that it used to have. That was amazing, seeing the first African-American president elected, but that died off within a year.”
LaSandra Jones, 48, of Charlottesville, was nearly seven blocks from the point where she would pass through a slow, painstaking security check. She, too, was undaunted, saying she would work as hard for the president's re-election as she did four years ago, when Obama became the first Democrat in 44 years to carry Virginia.
“I'm happy with what he's done, but he came into a mess and he's still trying to straighten it out,” Jones said. He's not as far along as she hoped he would be, she conceded, and that probably accounts for this year's muted level of excitement.
“Lots of people wanted him to come in and get it done right now, but he said from the start that this would take eight years,” she said.
The Obama campaign had sought to hold its rally at the University of Virginia, but school officials declined the request after determining that holding the event there would cancel or disrupt classes on the semester's second day and would shut down adjacent buildings for the entire day. So the campaign opted for the Charlottesville Pavilion on the city's downtown pedestrian mall.
Obama's Charlottesville stop was part of a swing of three college towns in toss-up battleground states.
The enthusiasm gap is critical to reprising Obama's 2008 triumph in battleground Virginia.
Obama stormed to a convincing Democratic primary victory over Hilary Clinton in February of that year. By late spring, when he had secured the nomination, he had legions of energized, organized youthful volunteers -- linked as no campaign before by texts, social media and sophisticated voter identification and registration drives.
By Election Day, dispirited Republicans weary from an Iraq War going badly and an economy going even worse under President George W. Bush were steamrolled by the Democrats' get-out-the-vote juggernaut. And when Virginia was called for Obama on election night, it clenched the presidency for him.
But that was then.
John Froitzheim, a professor of African politics and comparative politics at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, stood with his wife so far from the pavilion that it wasn't even in sight. He likely was among thousands who never made it into the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd under the covered pavilion and clustered around the perimeter of the facility.
“No, it's not the same. There was an appreciation then of what was happening in overcoming that racial barrier,” Froitzheim said. “The enthusiasm is a bit muted.”
For him, Wednesday was as much a matter of personal passion as an academic and professional exercise.
“I support President Obama because when I look at him, I kind of see me,” Froitzheim said. “Difficult early life, single parent, worked through college, earned his law degree and was editor of the Harvard Law Review. Think about that.”
While about 7,500 people crammed into the sweltering, standing-room-only open-air pavilion, hundreds more stood outside its fenced perimeter, in some places shoulder-to-shoulder 40 to 50 feet deep. The campaign, citing a policy no one can explain, refused to disclose how many tickets it distributed to Wednesday's event.
But such a crowd in the home of UVa and its progressive-minded students and faculty is no surprise, said Froitzheim, who lives in Charlottesville but commutes the 122 miles to Williamsburg each week. The city is among the most dependably Democratic in Virginia every year, an island in a conservative-voting rural region bounded to the west by the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In Virginia, polls show the race a practical dead heat between the president and Romney, who hopes to make the case that Obama's 2008 victory was an aberration, not the start of a Democratic trend.