Crowds move in early for Obama rally
TAMPA -- Doors opened early at the St. Pete Times Forum for today's rally with Barack Obama, and lines of people were briskly inside the arena as of 10:20 a.m.
Obama was late for the scheduled noon rally, but the crowd filled the time with the wave and at times shouting "Obama, Obama!"
Among the crowd were Angela and Barry Yuille of Seminole, who pulled all three of their children from school today to come to the rally. Angela Yuille said she didn't sleep last night, worried she wouldn't arrive early enough to get a seat.
"If we had a black president, that would be good for the rest of the world. Other countries could see our liberties," said Barry Yiulle Jr., 16. His father said: "We know he's going to be our next president. He's the best Democratic candidate. He's proven he can unite lots of people and all the country."
Stella Waddell, 84 and in a wheelchair, is a lifelong Democrat who lives in Pinellas County. She voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary, but changed her mind after being persuaded by her 8 1/2 year old grandson and Obama's speeches.
"He's energetic. He's trying to get the country straight," she said. Her grandson, Thomas Ernst, who goes to McMullen Booth Elementary, said "He's lowering the health prices. He's lowering the taxes. He's extending the security." His mother Jami Waddell, 46, is a teacher at High Point Elementary. She pulled Thomas out of school and took the day off, saying "He's seeing history."
Shortly after 10 a.m., the line to get in the Times Forum completely encircled the building. Keith Fraley, 38, of Largo, arrived at the building at 7 a.m. to ensure he'd get in. He said a group in front of him had been there since 5 a.m., and the man at the very front of the line had been waiting since 1 a.m.
Among those in their seats early was Michael Archibald, 40, an attorney from Temple Terrace, and his 10-year-old son, Tahjon. Archibald said he went to five places on Tuesday to get tickets to the event and finally found two at a beauty salon. He said he chose to let his son skip school, something he never does, to witness "a historic moment." Archibald said that as an African-American man, he's particularly excited to see Obama so close to winning the Democratic nomination.
Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy called the Obama rally "the mother of all events," saying no larger crowd has ever been expected at the Forum. She said the fire marshal and his staff were in the forum ready to close the doors when the arena reached capacity.
"It could not be going any better," she said.
By 11:30 a.m., there were no lines and people were moving swiftly through the 25 metal detectors set up.
Security workers from Tampa International Airport operated metal detectors at the request of the Secret Service, she said, and Tampa police provided bomb-sniffing dogs.
More than 40 Tampa police traffic officers were working the event, double the usual present for a hockey game, she said.
Area residents and local officials at the event said they are confident Obama's presence in the state will put him on more solid footing if he claims the Democratic nomination.
"If he works Florida and once people get to know him, he certainly can win Florida," said Bob Hackworth, the mayor of Dunedin and Democratic candidate for the congressional District 10 seat. "I think he's the one to bring people together."
Tampa City Councilwoman Gwen Miller said the formidable crowd in the forum was sending a message.
"This is important because this crowd shows that our vote is counting," Miller said. "We are here to show that it counts."
The diversity of the crowd is what caught Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch's eye.
"It's black, white, old, young," he said. "There is an unprecedented amount of energy."
State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said his support for Obama goes beyond the color of his skin.
"I'm here not because Obama is black but because he represents the greatness of this country," Rouson said.
--Justin George, Thomas Lake, Janet Zink and DeMorris Lee, Times Staff Writers