Home News Tribune Online 02/11/07
By RICK HARRISON
STAFF WRITER
rharrison@thnt.com
WOODBRIDGE Obama-mania hit the Reo Diner in Woodbridge Saturday as about 30 supporters gathered to hear Barack Obama, the first-term Democratic senator from Illinois, declare his candidacy for president.


"You get that vision of JFK's inaugural," said Damian Bednarz, the state director of New Jersey DraftObama.org. "The same energy coming out of it."
Bednarz said his group organized listening parties at 20 locations nationwide, including diners in Bergen, Essex, Hudson and Ocean counties to hear Obama speak from Springfield, Ill.
Obama announced his candidacy from the state capital where he began his elective career just 10 years ago, and in front of the building where in another century, Abraham Lincoln served eight years in the Illinois Legislature.
"We can build a more hopeful America," Obama said. "And that is why, in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a divided house to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still live, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for president of the United States."
Obama's voice from the television rose above the clack of plates and conversations in the Reo Diner, as many in the crowd nodded their heads and broke into occasional whoops and applause.
"I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness, a certain audacity, to this announcement," Obama said. "I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."
Obama spoke about investing in education, protecting employee benefits, insuring those who do not have health care, ending poverty, weaning America from foreign oil and fighting terrorism while rebuilding global alliances.
His speech was steeped in American history, touching on how previous generations have brought change fighting off colonizers, slavery and the Great Depression, welcoming immigrants, building railroads and landing a man on the moon.
Obama, 45, repeatedly referred to Lincoln and his success in moving a nation. He said it is because of Lincoln that Americans of every race face the challenges of the 21st century together.
"Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done," he said. "Today we are called once more, and it is time for our generation to answer that call."
And that call was heard even among those whose regular Saturday breakfast at the Reo was interrupted by the political hubbub.
"He's young, and he's smart," said Anthony DeRasmi, a 59-year-old Fords resident who had never heard an Obama speech before Saturday. "He'll change the system. We need a young man the old people are too old fashioned. I'd vote for him."
Lorraine Williams, a 56-year-old Deptford resident seated at DeRasmi's table, was equally impressed but felt the country wasn't ready for a black president like Obama or a female president like Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.
"There's too much prejudice in the country," Williams said. "But I think he's the best black candidate I've ever seen running for president. He's a lawyer, he's a senator he's got the best qualifications. I feel he can make a change."
Bednarz said he doesn't believe race will hinder Obama's campaign.
"I think we've gone through generational changes," he said. "Anyone who has the character and the judgment to be president will get elected. It's not an issue of color."
Richard McCray, a 60-year-old Perth Amboy resident who made an unsuccessful run against state Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, said voters realize they want someone who can do the job regardless of his race or party affiliation. And he said Obama's relative lack of experience in national politics shouldn't hinder him either.
"How many people have the experience of being president before being president?" McCray said. "None. Every little bit helps, but there is no school to go to and learn to be president."
Obama gained national recognition with the publication of two best-selling books, "Dreams From My Father" and "The Audacity of Hope," and by delivering the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His optimistic message and his compelling biography immediately sparked talk of his White House potential.
Initially he said he would not run for president. But he said last fall that he was considering it after receiving so much encouragement. He formed a presidential exploratory committee last month.
Bednarz said he wasn't sure what shape his group might take next, having achieved its original goal of convincing Obama to run. But before people began to leave the diner, Bednarz said this was not the end.
"We drafted him," he said. "But the next step is to make him president."
Contributing: The Associated Press