IN SOUTH CAROLINA on Sunday, 29,000 people came out to hear cultural diva Oprah Winfrey extol the virtues of Barack Obama, her pick for president. It was the largest rally so far of the 2008 presidential campaign. The crowd was mostly female and overwhelmingly black. People dressed in their best church clothes - women in their "crowns" or elaborate church hats - danced and shouted "Amen" to Oprah's exhortations.
By contrast, the 6,000 people who attended the Oprah event in Manchester, N.H., Sunday night looked like they had just come from a hockey game. Dressed in damp down jackets (it was snowing outside), blue jeans, and Uggs, this crowd was young and overwhelmingly white. Enthusiastic but clearly more reserved than in the South, the audience nonetheless cheered lustily when Governor John Lynch announced the New England Patriots had trounced the Steelers.
In South Carolina, the spiritual subtext of the speeches was undeniable. Both Winfrey and Obama explicitly praised God for their blessings. "It's amazing grace that brought me here," Winfrey said, adding that getting involved in politics for the first time was a little daunting. "I feel like I'm stepping out of my pew," she said. Delivering much the same introduction in New Hampshire, she said she was "stepping out of my box." Her invocation of the 1971 Ernest Gaines novel "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," about a 110-year-old former slave, was largely lost on the New Hampshire crowd.
Looking at the country through the prism of two similar events bookending the same day is a reminder that regional differences still deeply define America, despite the homogenization brought about by the Internet, big box stores, and jet travel. And it's not just Obama; anyone traveling with a candidate, of either party, would see it too. Trade is a bigger issue in states with a large contingent of organized labor. Immigration is more salient in the Southwest than in states that border Canada. Gun rights are important in rural states - or even rural areas of urban states - that have a strong tradition of hunting.
It is one more reason why the presidential selection process should not devolve to a one-day national primary - a direction the major parties seem to inch closer to every four years. Far better would be a rotating series of four regional primaries, with a different region going first each time. The economies, cultures, and traditions that drive Iowa are just not the same in Nevada or Florida or Pennsylvania, and each deserves its share of focused attention from the candidates .
Still, some things seemed to unite these partisan Democrats across regional lines. In each appearance, including the kickoff rally in Iowa the night before, Obama made the observation that the 2008 ballot will not include the name of George W. Bush. Each time, the crowd went wild.