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Concord Monitor: In North Country, Obama Receives A Warm Welcome

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Concord Monitor: In North Country, Obama receives a warm welcome

By Lauren R. Dorgan

Sen. Barack Obama talked race relations in Berlin and veteran mental health care in Conway yesterday on the first of a two-day tour across New Hampshire's North Country. The crowds were jubilant, and Obama - traveling with his family - seemed more relaxed and hit many more applause lines than usual.

Last night ended with a chilly ice cream social with about 300 people - some of them wearing fleece, few of them munching on cones - on a town square in Berlin. Today, the Illinois senator and Democratic presidential candidate is planning a morning town hall in Littleton and a midday rally at Dartmouth College.

On previous trips, Obama has often described problems in detail without naming any particular villain; yesterday he hit a little harder, denouncing federal subsidies for profit-making college loan companies and companies that go to bankruptcy court to "weasel out" of pension agreements.

But if Obama was more partisan than usual, he didn't match some parts of his audience: One woman shouted out "Cheney! Impeach Cheney!" at the Conway event, to which Obama responded "Well, that's a suggestion, too."

At one point, Obama invoked President Bush's last day in office.

"I think the world will breathe a sigh of relief. We will be able to stand before the world and say: 'We are back. America is ready to lead,' " he told the crowd of 1,500 at Conway's Kennett High School, where he was greeted with a two-minute ovation. "Now, we want to lead working with you, by example, on dealing with nuclear proliferation. We want to lead in ending the genocide in Darfur. We want to lead with you on dealing with the AIDS crisis and building schools."

At 45 years old and with just over two years in the U.S. Senate, Obama has had to fight questions about his experience. Yesterday, he alluded to policy proposals coming down the pike, including a "very specific proposal" to improve teacher recruitment, needed, he said, to replace the million baby boomers who would be retiring over the next 10 years.

Tomorrow, he said, he would release a plan for universal health care. A couple of details he cited yesterday: a "catastrophic insurance program" to help the worst cases and a plan to negotiate with drug companies for cheaper pharmaceuticals, "just like they do north of the border."

Yesterday in Conway, he unveiled a proposal for improving mental health care for veterans, including increased recruitment for psychologists and psychiatrists and more screening for post-traumatic stress disorder for veterans.

But there was time for lighter moments, too. Obama said he brought his family on the trip up north so they could scout out spots for summer and fall.

"We may dump the kids and Michelle and I have a little romantic weekend sometime - with the TV cameras and secret service following us. It'll be a little intimate affair," he joked.

Obama's daughters - Sasha, 5, and Malia, 8 - were along for the ride yesterday, but they spent most of their time on the campaign bus. As Obama put it: "The girls decided they don't want to listen to their daddy."

Obama has sometimes seemed to have trouble sealing the deal on the stump, making a rousing case for civic engagement but stopping short of asking people to vote for him.

At both stops yesterday, he seemed to go out of his way to do just that.

"I want to formally ask for your vote, but most importantly I want to ask you to get involved in this campaign," he told the crowd in Berlin.

George Stanley of Berlin asked Obama a question that he said he probably wouldn't ask another candidate. He asked Obama - who, if elected, would be the first African-American president - how he would improve race relations.

"You know, I think you should ask it of every candidate, because it's a critical issue," Obama said.

He said the nation has come a long way since his birth in 1961 - when many states still lived under Jim Crow laws - and that the government should do more to fight discrimination. But, he said, a lot of the problem comes down to economic problems he said he'd tackle as president.

"All those issues are important. But one thing I'm convinced about is, if blacks, whites, and Hispanics are all roughly the same economically, then I think that you're going to see much better race relations across the country," he said.

The final questioner in Conway directed her query to Michelle Obama, asking why she should vote for her husband and what she would do as first lady.

"He's not running for president because he wants to be president, that's sort of the irony of it," said Michelle Obama, 43, a hospital executive in Chicago. "He's running for president because he truly believes that we can do better as a country."

Michelle Obama said she doesn't know what she'd tackle as first lady, saying it would depend on what their daughters need, what her family and what the country needs.


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