Thousands Turn Out for Obama, But Ohio Arena Goes Unfilled

(Columbus Dispatch, Brooke LaValley/AP Photo)

RICHMOND, Va. - Thousands turned out for President Obama today at his first re-election campaign rallies in Ohio and Virginia but there were no overflowing crowds - a distinct contrast from the scenes in the 2008 campaign, which Republicans are gleeful to point out.

In Ohio, Obama wasn't able to fill the stands at the 18,300-seat Schottenstein Center (about 4,300 seats were empty). His rally at the Siegel Center at Virginia Commonwealth University was at its 8,000-person capacity.

"Not the 'overflow' crowd he promised," tweeted Ryan Williams, a spokesman for Mitt Romney who had found his way inside the Ohio State University event and snapped this  photo.

The image later appeared atop conservative blogs, including one with the banner, "Obama Launches Campaign in Half Empty Stadium."

Obama campaign aides privately suggested the OSU venue might have been a bit outsized, while citing the weather (thunderstorms) in Richmond for dispersing the extra crowds expected there. That so many turned out and in numbers bigger than Romney ever draws is an unqualified victory, they say.

"The difference between our events today and Governor Romney's is that people came," tweeted Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. He was referring to Romney's invitation-only event in February at Ford Field, when the governor spoke to Detroit business leaders surrounded by hundreds of empty seats.

An estimated 14,000 supporters turned out for Obama in Columbus, according to the city fire marshal, and 8,000 filled the stands in Richmond. Not a small turnout by any means, and hardly "half empty."

But there would not arguably have been any open seats four years ago, or perhaps if Obama were more popular now.

Still, in more than two dozen interviews at both venues, supporters offered up genuine enthusiasm for the president, as well as honest and open assessments of his first term.

Most blamed what they described as Republican obstructionism for Obama's legislative shortcomings. There was also a significant amount of concern about Romney as a threat to women and the middle class. Both are themes the White House and Obama campaign have spent months cultivating.

"I'm not satisfied with his four years," said Anita Bixenstine, 68, of Kent, Ohio. "But I think he's been fighting a do-nothing Congress and some bad public opinion."

"I have tremendous fear of the opposition," added husband Ed Bixenstine, referring to Romney.

"We realize that the president did not do much of what he promised four years ago, we realize that. But you also realize the influence of the Republicans on his efforts - they have been a roadblock at every corner," said Delia Alkhatib, 29, of Columbus. "So we're keeping that in mind, and hoping that he'll be more aggressive and more of who we voted for in '08 in a second term, because practically he'll have nothing to lose."

"It's been a tough four years, won't lie," said Brandon Toyer, a 34-year-old software engineer, from Richmond. "But things are looking up now. If we give him a little more time, we'll see things through."

Wendy Stewart, a retired social worker, said she turned out for the rally because "there's a war on women."

"I want to support Obama's goal of helping women, you know, with birth control," she said.  "If Romney would get in, he would take us, especially the women, back to the 1930s or 50s."