BANGOR – In the past 20 years, only rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd and a few illustrious Maine high school basketball players have filled the Bangor Auditorium the way Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama did Saturday afternoon.
The Illinois senator conducted his 4 p.m. “Stand for Change” rally from a small stage at the center of a crowd of 5,700 people. Outside in the cold, more than 1,000 people were turned away, according to Mike Dyer, director of the Bangor Auditorium.
The ages of those in attendance varied greatly and a large number of students were present. Colby College juniors Nick Baranowski and Peter Kirn said they took a bus from Waterville to hear Obama’s opinions on campaign finance reform, environmental issues and health insurance.
“I wanted to see what he has to say because I don’t know much about anybody in the race,” Baranowski said.
Lonnie Thompson, a 36-year-old Norridgewock resident and education technician, was one of many people who arrived feeling uncertain about whether they preferred Obama over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I wouldn’t make an informed decision until I’d heard what he said,” Thompson said.
As he left the auditorium, Thompson said he was impressed with Obama’s “eloquent speaking” and “sincerity” and said he would vote for the Illinois senator in Sunday’s Democratic caucus.
That was exactly the kind of persuasive effect Obama and his numerous staff members and volunteers hoped the candidate would have on visiting Maine. His visit came after an appearance Saturday morning by Clinton in Orono. Her event was held in a smaller space on the University of Maine campus.
The applause, cries and whoops of Obama supporters filled the auditorium even before the candidate appeared. The audience members gave riotous applause and pounded their seats when Obama mentioned a few subjects: his initial opposition to the war in Iraq, his plans for $4,000 annual tuition credits for college students, his belief that hope can overcome cynicism, his plan for health insurance subsidies and his opinion that education will fuel the economy.
The cheers sent a frightened 2-year-old, Jadon Callahan, into the hallway with his grandmother Joan Callahan, a 64-year-old special education director from Augusta.
“I was curious to hear what he has to say,” Callahan said as she comforted her grandson. “He [Obama] reminds me of John F. Kennedy, and I voted for Kennedy. I remember the charisma and excitement he generated.”
Ryan Rice, 20, a computer science major at UM and a registered Republican, said he was skeptical of Obama but attended the rally anyway.
“I think he’s the right guy; I just need to make sure he’s sincere,” Rice said.
Before the rally, Obama spoke briefly to the overflow crowd of about 1,000 people outside the Bangor Civic Center.
Earlier in the afternoon, he visited Nicky’s Cruisin’ Diner on Union Street, surprising many of the lunchtime patrons. He shook hands and said hello to Jon Richardson, a 58-year-old retired driver from Bangor.
“I think it’s very good that he comes down here and meets the people, the working people,” Richardson said. An independent voter, Richardson said there’s a “good possibility” he will vote for Obama.
After the rally, Obama was whisked to the airport for a flight to Richmond, Va.
During his speech at the Bangor Auditorium, Obama mentioned that a member of his Secret Service detail is the son of former Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan, who attended the rally.