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Pioneer Press - With Grass-Roots Themes, Obama Fires Up A Crowd

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Pioneer Press - With Grass-Roots Themes, Obama Fires Up A Crowd

By Bill Salisbury

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama electrified an enthusiastic crowd of supporters Friday evening in Minneapolis with his populist message of hope for a better future and a change in the nation's direction.

A young, racially diverse crowd of about 3,000 cheering partisans paid $25 each to pack into the atrium at International Market Square to help the freshman Illinois senator kick off his Minnesota campaign.

Obama told them they were typical of the big, enthusiastic crowds that have turned out for him across the country.

"It's tempting to think it's all about me; I'm so fabulous," he joked.

But that's not why people are turning out, he said. "The reason they are coming out is, they're ready for change."

They're weary of President Bush and the "politics of can't do, won't do, won't even try," he said. And they're especially weary of the war in Iraq, which, he stressed, he opposed from the start.

But it's not enough to be against, he continued. People want affirmation that they can come together again as a nation and find common purpose.

People in Washington call him a naive "hope hugger," he said. But he is hopeful because the United States has emerged strong from tougher times.

"We can solve our problems," he said. "What's missing is the political will."

Obama's 30-minute speech was light on policy details and heavy on emotional appeal.

He said he offers the leadership to provide universal health care, improve education, protect the environment, ensure good wages for workers and withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. "We can be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in," he said.

Before the rally, Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan warned in a phone interview that Obama's views are far more liberal than those of mainstream Minnesotans.

"He's really shifted recently to try to please the people on the left in the Democratic Party," he said, citing the senator's stated support for tax increases and his vote "against funding our troops."

"He's also unproven," Duncan said. "He's a rookie."

But Obama demonstrated in Minneapolis that he's a rookie with a talent for firing up a crowd that is reminiscent of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone.

He invoked Wellstone's name and Minnesota's tradition of grass-roots politics. "Change happens from the bottom up," he said. "That's the tradition I came up in."

Obama's campaign is untraditional in that he relies heavily on small donations, such as the $25 contributions in Minneapolis. His campaign announced earlier in the day that it had received contributions from more than 250,000 people in the first six months of the year - a stunning number by some accounts.

But he also raises money the old-fashioned way. After the rally, he attended a $1,000-per-person fundraising reception at the Minneapolis home of big-time Democratic contributors Sam and Sylvia Kaplan. The event reportedly drew more than 200 people.

Nevertheless, his supporters at the rally called him a champion of ordinary folks.

"I like the way he runs his campaign more at the grass-roots level than by taking big money," said Paul Smiskol, of Minneapolis, a college research coordinator.

Attending her first political rally, Eden Prairie High School senior Meghann Brestovansky said she and her friends are excited about the youthful-looking Obama.

"He's fresh and open to new ideas. I do think there's a generational attraction," she said.

High school teachers Heidi and Clint McCowan drove four hours from Bayfield, Wis., to hear Obama's speech.

Why? "Because this guy makes us feel patriotic again," Heidi McCowan said.

"He really inspires us," Clint McCowan added.


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