By Kiley Miller
A few minutes before Sen. Barack Obama entered Loren Walker Arena at Southeastern Community College on Sunday afternoon, two of his campaign staffers opened the exterior doors.
Immediately, a breath of cool March air danced into the stuffy gym.
For many in the crowd, Obama offers the same uplifting, invigorating power.
"There's a magic there," said John Dahl of Burlington. "This fellow is genuine."
An anonymous state legislator in Illinois just a few years ago, Obama caught the nation's eye while still a senate candidate with a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Now he's a contender for his party's presidential nomination.
But that sudden fame didn't stop him from playing it loose and casual here, the last stop on a two-day, five-town tour of eastern Iowa.
After urging everyone present to back him in the state's January caucuses he assumed the role of an imaginary Iowa Democrat: "Well, I haven't heard what Hillary has to say (and) John Edwards is kind of cute."
Obama had been expected to talk about his plan for a full withdrawal from Iraq. Instead, he gave a quick why -- I'm -- running speech in which he called on his listeners to "put your shoulder against the wheel and move history," then spent 25 minutes fielding questions. Despite the stage lights and rapid -- fire cameras, the forum wound up taking on the feel of a living room chat, albeit in a living room that held 800 people.
"We are at a crossroads," Obama said, "and if we don't make some serious (decisions) we may be the first generation in a very long time to pass on a world that's a little poorer and a little meaner than the one we inherited from our parents."
Moments like that stirred many in the gym, among them a young woman from Burlington named Sarah Hazell.
"... My parents' generation had Kennedy and Martin Luther King," Hazell said soon after Obama left the platform. "Now we finally have someone to look to and follow and get hold of."
The event's informality freed Obama to bounce from one touchstone issue to another, going wherever the next question led.
Asked about health care, he promised a universal insurance program within his first presidential term.
"It won't be Cadillac coverage," he said. Instead, the nation's uninsured should expect the equivalent of a Yugo -- something simple and durable.
Edwards laid out a more detailed proposal for universal health care during his campaign stop Saturday night in Burlington.
When a teenager turned the topic to education, Obama seized the chance to advocate greater spending for recruitment, pay and retention of teachers and to make college accessible and affordable to all. He also demanded full funding of federal education programs.
"If we're going to pass a bill called No Child Left Behind," he said, "we can't leave the money behind."
When the applause sparked by that comment died down, Obama shifted tenor a bit, saying some of the fault "has to do with our own attitudes about education." No amount of new spending will help if kids don't crack the books, he said.
"I'm conservative about work," he continued. "I believe in hard work."
Minutes earlier, Obama had zeroed in on another topic sure to stir emotions, denouncing as "unacceptable" and "inexcusable" conditions wounded veterans have endured at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"...We've got young men and women who are laying their lives on the line," he said, "and they come back and they've got mold on the walls, rats and roaches."
Edwards, likewise, spoke out against the situation at Walter Reed, but Obama's seat on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs lends greater weight to his voice.
It is on Iraq, however, that Obama has an undeniable advantage over Edwards and his other chief rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton. He was not in the Senate yet when they both voted to give President Bush the authority to launch the war.
To drive home this point, campaign volunteers handed out copies Sunday of a speech Obama gave at an anti-war rally in Chicago in October 2002.
"We're in a war that should have never been authorized. It should have never been waged," he said, one of several times when his final words were nearly drowned out by cheers.
Obama has introduced a bill on Capitol Hill that would require the military to begin a phased exit from Iraq no later than May 1 and complete a full withdrawal by the end of March 2008. The legislation allows for a temporary suspension of the pull-out if the Iraqi government meets a series of benchmarks, a provision that has drawn criticism from some other Democrats.
In a private interview with The Hawk Eye , Obama said a "strong diplomatic thrust" involving Iran and Syria is key to stability in the Middle East.
"At this point, there is not a military solution to the problems we are facing in Iraq," he said. "If we are going to bring about a reduction in the violence, it is going to happen because the political factions work together to make a decision on how to accommodate each others' interests."
Obama's greatest weakness as a candidate -- or at least the one most often pointed out by critics -- is his lack of national experience. He is just two years into his first Senate term.
Rather than avoid the issue Sunday, Obama gave it a verbal brush off, saying he had "been in Washington long enough to know that Washington needs to change."
To Burlington man Matt Roosevelt, the response was right on target.
"You hear a lot about his lack of experience," Roosevelt said before Obama took the microphone, "but I think that could work for him because he's not stuck in a box."
Much also has been made of Obama's race. He is the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother. For Christina Stepps, a white woman from Middletown, that is nothing but great.
"We want him to be our first African-American president," Stepps said, "and we want him to kick Hillary's ... barack --as."
Turning serious, Stepps said she believed Obama was both a family man and a "man of vision."
"He serves God," she said. "You can see the light of Jesus in him."
Obama closed out his prepared comments with something like a half-time speech, firing up his team a bit before he started taking questions. Politics in the nation can no longer be small and trivial, he said. The focus must shift from divisions to common bonds.
"The problem is not that we don't have good answers," he said. "The problem is we lack the political will and leadership to make these things happen."
Long before she heard those words, Martie Boyd knew in her heart Obama was the man she wanted in the White House. It started with that speech at the Democratic National Convention when all she could think was "wow."
"I don't have any doubts," Boyd said. "We need a fresh perspective and he has an open mind ... People just need to open their eyes and listen with their hearts and their souls and hear what he has to say."