Foster's Online - Obama urges local voters to 'See America as it can be'
Adam D. Krauss
HAMPTON -- Before Barack Obama introduced himself to a capacity crowd Friday morning at Adeline C. Marston Elementary School, he could be found down the street at Hampton Academy, where he and his aides took on town firefighters on the basketball court.
Marston Principal David O'Connor said the group played three or four games from about 7 to 8:15 a.m., with Obama's team -- made up of a "bunch of ringers," including campaign aide Reggie Love, the 6'4" former Duke University player -- taking each one.
"Even though he's a presidential candidate, he was just one of the guys out on the floor," said O'Connor, tasked with defending the tall and wiry Obama, whose love for basketball has been documented in his books. "What really impressed me is that he's a real, regular person."
The morning games were more for exercise and fun than an attempt to secure endorsements, according to Obama campaign staff.
About an hour later, the Democrat was in another gym under more basketball hoops, but this time he was wearing a suit jacket and pants and the focus was on withdrawing troops from Iraq, raising teachers' salaries as part of improving the education system and strengthening the economy.
He also talked of penalizing companies that pollute the environment, setting higher fuel standards, putting alternative energy to better use, closing the gap between average families and Wall Street stockholders and, before he met privately with volunteers and left for a stop in Manchester, health care.
The freshman U.S. senator from Illinois didn't announce anything too new during the event, but that didn't seem to be the point of the event. New Hampshire campaign spokesman Reid Cherlin said the event aimed at "building the organization," as evidenced by the thick stack of volunteer sign-up cards staffers were sorting through as the gym emptied around 11 a.m.
Obama's campaign counted 600 people in the gym, where the bleachers were packed with voters young and old. Many of their arms flew up in the air in hopes of asking a question and the back wall was lined with people who arrived too late to find a seat. There was also a heavy campaign staff and volunteer presence.
The venue was smaller than the site of past Obama events, suggesting the campaign is looking to get the candidate closer to voters, per New Hampshire primary fashion.
Despite the resounding applause he received for virtually everything he said, and voters who said they came away impressed with Obama, there were some who wanted to hear more and others who withheld their support until they see other candidates; primarily his top rivals.
"I like absolutely everything he talks about," said Courtney Clemente, 20, of Salem. "The only thing I was disappointed in is he didn't mention race at all, and I was going to ask the question, 'Do you plan to focus on the advancement of racial minorities?' I know he's talked about it previously, but I feel that since he was in New Hampshire he kind of didn't mention it."
She said America is ready to elect a black president, particularly Obama, the son of a white woman and Kenyan man. "He is someone American can relate to," said Clemente, whose ethnic makeup is Dominican, Chinese and Irish.
Judy Romano, a retired teacher who's recovered from cancer, said health care will drive her vote. She said she wanted to hear more details from Obama on Medicaid reform, but thinks he's in a good position to make a strong run for his party's nomination.
Romano's not ready to back Obama, who remains in second place in state polls. "I want to hear Hillary (Clinton) one more time, and John Edwards," she said.
Stacie Paradis, who works in marketing in Portsmouth, got to meet the candidate as he posed for pictures and shook hands under the watchful eye of his Secret Service detail.
Paradis said the "intimate" setting gave Obama a chance to be loose. She thinks he has broad appeal, but isn't sure the country is ready for a person like Obama in the White House. "We had a debate last night if a black man or white woman ... would have a chance," she said. "I think a black man has a chance over a white woman, but do either have a chance in America? We'll find out. It's a big question."
It's also a question Obama did not address Friday, but he continued to present himself as a new kind of leader, as someone who is above "partisan bickering" and "slash-and-burn politics," someone who doesn't mind being chided by a "cynical" press as a "hope peddler" or "hope-monger."
But despite this, news outlets have taken note of his recent attempts to distinguish himself from Clinton, who is viewed in some circles as the party's anointed front-runner. For instance, Obama has gone after Clinton's efforts to reverse the war authorization she and Congress granted President Bush in 2002.
"There are no do-overs on an issue as important as war," he previously said, according to published reports.
Such language was not on display Friday, but, to wild applause, reversing direction in Iraq played heavily. He characterized the war as a failure, saying only "bad options and worse options" remain.
"But I believe that we can still act responsibly, and we can still be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in, that we can still make sure to bring our troops out in a gradual fashion over the next year, because the fact is there is no military solution to the war in Iraq at this point," he said, turning his sights on the Iraqi legislature's decision to go on summer vacation.
"We should not expect our young men and women to police a civil war," he said, his voice getting louder, "when those parties that are involved are not willing to sit down at the negotiating table to figure things out."
Obama, who was not in Congress but was a state legislator, opposed going to war. He's been behind a plan to immediately begin removing troops, with the goal of bringing home all combat brigades before April 2008.
Obama, Clinton and other Senate Democrats running for president supported a plan this week to begin withdrawing troops within 120 days, but the measure didn't muster enough bipartisan support.
When asked about cutting the F-22 Raptor jet program from the defense budget, Obama said he didn't want to get into specifics because the "easiest thing to do is to make promises in campaign time," but he pledged "I will have a bill signed creating universal health care by the end of my first term."
Obama, a former community organizer, also addressed poverty, which seems to be rising on some of the candidates' issues lists. He said the focus has to be on early education, helping at-risk parents, community-service job opportunities and expanding the earned income tax credit program, which offers subsidies to workers who remain in poverty.
Obama said his $6 billion proposal to combat poverty amounts to "a little more than half of what we're spending in Iraq every month, so don't tell me that we don't have the money to take this problem on."
The crowd, including numerous local legislators, released a prolonged cheer when an audience member asked if Obama would do something to impeach President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, but Obama resisted the red meat.
"No," he said, "and the reason is that I think it's very important for us not to get in the habit, as a political culture, that we impeach every president. It's supposed to be a rare occurrence, and I think it will be an enormous political distraction. What I want to do is undo many of the encroachments on our civil liberties that we've seen out of this White House."
Signifying the primary campaign is well underway, Obama pledged to do some of the same things that his rivals have been trumpeting on the campaign trail, such as closing Guantanamo Bay and restoring habeus corpus in America's fight against violent Islamic extremism.
Before taking a few questions, many reflecting concerns on the domestic front, Obama revisited a staple of his campaign: voter empowerment.
"We're going to need to re-engage in this election. This is one of those moments that doesn't come around that often, where the country is ready for change. It's hungry for change," he said. "And if we put our shoulder against the wheel we can move history in a better direction right now than we've seen in a very long time."
Standing in the middle of a cordoned off area, with the stars and stripes behind him, he urged people "not to just settle for America as it is, but America as it can be."