By Mary Rae Bragg
Barack Obama, the last - but hardly the least - of the Democratic Party's big three presidential contenders to bring campaigns to Dubuque arrived Saturday to the cheers of a packed Loras College Fieldhouse.
Illinois' freshman senator, who first ignited a presidential buzz with his speech before the Democratic National Convention in 2004, drew enthusiastic bursts of applause as he spoke with a capacity crowd of 2,700.
The town hall forum provided Obama questions from the audience on about a dozen issues, but not before he had an opportunity to discuss his views on the war in Iraq, "a war that never should have been authorized."
"It is time to end this war and bring our troops home," Obama said to loud applause.
His campaign staff distributed brochures noting Obama spoke against a U.S. invasion of Iraq during his race for the U.S. Senate in 2002. His stand sets him apart from his party's two other front-runners, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, who was a North Carolina senator and voted with Clinton in support of the war.
Edwards, who had his first Dubuque 2008 campaign rally on Feb. 18, has said he was "wrong" in initially supporting the invasion. Clinton, who campaigned in Dubuque March 4, has said "mistakes were made."
In an exclusive interview with the Telegraph Herald prior to his appearance, Obama said he chose to highlight his stand on the war during his appearances in Iowa cities this weekend because he believes the election is "going to be about re-prioritizing."
"I think we face an enormous number of challenges: health care, job creation, energy, education," Obama said. "But I think it is going to be tough to make progress on these issues as long as we are embroiled in what is effectively becoming a sectarian civil war."
The senator has introduced binding legislation that would begin a troop pullout from Iraq May 1, with all American military out by March 31, 2008.
Obama attributed his rapid rise in popularity to people noticing his attempts to conduct an open, positive Senate campaign, and the resulting support he received from diverse groups, both black and white in all parts of Illinois.
Obama said he is aware Iowans expect him to get away from the media swarm and speak with them in their homes and coffee shops. He promised to do that, even if it means he has to "give the media the slip once in a while."
Obama said he does not mind the close scrutiny a presidential campaign means for his personal life because it "thickens your hide in a useful way," preparing candidates for the pressures of the presidency.
During the forum, Obama said there is a need for laws that "even up the balance" between unions such as the nurses currently in labor negotiations at The Finley Hospital and business. At the same time, we need to create a thriving business climate that provides jobs that allows workers to advance, he said.
Obama said he would commit to a thorough review of military spending, supporting a phase out of obsolete military systems while replacing National Guard equipment destroyed in Iraq.
Funding for veterans care needs to be put on equal footing with other federal spending, he said.
"There's no reason veterans have to come every year hat in hand," Obama said to applause.
America is left with no good options in Iraq, he said, and while we should be responsible in helping the Iraqi people rebuild, their government must stabilize itself or America will just be throwing its money away.
"We should be as careful getting out as we were careless in getting in," he said.
Global warming is a reality that we must deal with or face consequences that will include crop failures, he said. The effort should include reducing greenhouse gases by making cars more fuel efficient, raising fuel efficiency standards, investing in ethanol and other alternative fuels and expanding their distribution system.
Obama said he will be releasing his health care plan within a few months, but previewed it by saying it is necessary to get savings from the health care system at the same time access to it is expanded. He rejected funding proposals that increase co-pays or "squeeze" health care employees by increasing their patient loads. Mental health coverage should be on par with coverage for physical illness, he said.
A frequent critic of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind education program, Obama said it created another unfunded mandate for local government to fund, without providing adequate assessment tools to show how individual children are progressing.
Calling abortion "a profound and difficult moral issue," Obama said, "I trust women, in general, to make the best decision."
Obama urged his audience to make their opinions heard by being involved in the caucus process.
"Don't sit this one out. This is a big election ..." he said, as the crowd's cheers drowned out his final words.