A week ago Wednesday, when I persuaded myself I ought to be up in North Raleigh with the protesters as President Bush’s motorcade went by, I thought maybe 100 people would show up. Nope, 200.

And on Saturday, after I’d predicted a turnout for John & Johnny at N.C. State of 10,000, it dawned very hot and very humid and I thought, well, maybe only 5,000 will show. Nope, at least 15,000, and perhaps it was closer to the 25,000 the Democrats claimed. It was the biggest political crowd I’ve ever seen, at any rate, and the biggest crowd by far of the Kerry campaign to date.

So we sent a message to the country. Is the South in play? If it is–if Kerry-Edwards are even close to carrying North Carolina–we are talking about a landslide nationally. Right now, that’s certainly within the range of possibilities, though not right on top of the bell curve. But even if Dixie is still a little out of reach for the Democratic ticket, nonetheless the message from Raleigh to the U.S. of A. and all the ships at sea is, “Big ‘Mo With the Dems/Look at All These Southern Folks, Black, White and Shades o’ Brown, Standing in the 96-Degree Heat and Lovin’ It.”

Now, for my profound insights. Where the hell was Gov. Mike Easley? A prior family obligation? Oh, please. And poor Elaine Marshall. Our secretary of state just went on and on and on with her speech, and all she was supposed to do was introduce Elizabeth Edwards. It was 96 degrees, Madame Secretary, not to mention that nobody could hear a word you said. John Edwards, a lot of the same antiwar folks who picketed you in Raleigh last spring were there Saturday cheering you on. Did you say we should never go to war “needlessly?” Please elaborate on that this fall, will you?

The very best thing about these rallies and protests, as we swelter in the heat, is the other folks standing around us and what they’re up to aside from politics. In this most important election of our lifetimes, the contest isn’t just between Kerry-Edwards and Bush-Cheney, or even mainly between them (but we do have to get the fanatics out of the White House). It’s between the people who were sitting outside their North Raleigh McMansions on Wednesday, waving their little American flags and expressing some satisfaction at the way things are going under Bush … and those of us who were out by the roadside (sorry, no sidewalks where we were) not waving our American flags (sorry, no sticks allowed if you’re protesting) and not real happy with Bush’s moves.

In the latter category, there are so many people for whom this political campaign has been an amazing turn-on of their social consciousness, after the complacent ’90s. Folks who are writing their checks to the candidates, and rallying for the TV cameras, but who also–when those brief tasks are done–are looking for a way to make a difference themselves, because they recognize that Bush is the product of an American culture–hey, he almost got as many votes as Al Gore–and the point is to change the culture, not just the figurehead.

I’ll give you one example. His name is Charles McKoy. He was standing next to me for a long time on Saturday, so naturally we got to talking. McKoy is a native of Fuquay-Varina, grew up in Southeast Raleigh, and now lives in North Raleigh, where he’s the manager of a dry cleaners. He’s also involved in a faith-based nonprofit that wants to employ people in the dry-cleaning biz for one year after they come out of prison; it will teach them money-saving techniques, entrepreneurial skills and basic good etiquette, he said, along with a spiritual message of hope.

Faith-based? Sounded Republican, or Farrakhan-ish. But it was neither, as McKoy’s “Kerry-Edwards” and “God Help Us!” buttons attested–the latter over a likeness of Bush-as-Alfred E. Newman.

McKoy was at Bill Clinton’s first inaugural, and rates it and the Million Man March in his top three of things-he-was-at, along with the rally Saturday. He’s not very political. He is born-again. And this year, his born-again spirit is telling him that the biggest problem in America is hopelessness, and the way to attack it is by helping the most hopeless group of all–ex-offenders.

By so doing, he also hopes to make a small dent in the biggest problem he thinks is facing America: “America is a good country,” he said to me, “but we’re not looked at that way by the world. And until we can change the way the world views us, we’re always going to be attacked.” The world thinks we’re out to “attack the devil,” and the devil could be them, he said. “Attacking the devil is God’s job. Our job is to love our neighbor.”