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Reno Gazette-Journal - Elko Voters Cheer Obama

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Reno Gazette-Journal - Elko Voters Cheer Obama

Anjeanette Damon

ELKO -- Deviating little from his central campaign message of bringing change to Washington, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama told an Elko crowd tonight he would end the Iraq War, provide universal health care by the end of his first term and change the way education is funded in the country.

In his first trip to rural Nevada, Obama ventured into the state's Republican stronghold -- territory few other national Democrats have traveled -- drawing a crowd of nearly 900.

He attempted to fine tune his messagwe to voters with appeals to the region's strong antipathy for federal government spending and a promise to develop a sensible mining platform. But he promised to return to the region to better learn about the issues voters here face.

"As many of you know, Nevada is an early state," he said. "That means a lot of presidential candidates will be traveling to Nevada. All too often that just means either you're going to Vegas or you're going to Reno. I want to make sure to go up to the places other folks aren't going."

Obama's visit to Elko is the latest in a string of presidential campaign stops in the rural town of nearly 17,000. Contenders in Nevada's Jan. 19 caucus are loath to ignore even the sparsely populated areas of the state.

So far, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have stumped in Elko. Next week, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is scheduled to make an appearance. Voters in Elko are soaking up the attention.

"I want to hear what all the candidates have to say," said Nitin Bhakta, a non-partisan Elko voter who is making the rounds of campaign rallies.

Obama spent about an hour before the crowd that included Democrats, non-partisan and Republican voters. After short opening remarks, he answered questions from the crowd on education, health care and immigration--issues traditionally voiced in more Democratic areas of the country.

He repeatedly asked for people to talk about concerns peculiar to Elko County, eventually drawing a question about hard rock mining.

He said he needs more time to learn about the issue, but explicitly rejected imposing an 8 percent royalty fee on mining federal land. U.S. Sen. John Kerry's support of such a royalty hurt him in 2004.

"We need to make sure the industry continues to thrive in this region, but also make sure the federal government is adequately compensated," he said. "The 8 percent increase in royalties, I haven't signed up for that."

More than 80 percent of Nevada is owned by the federal government. Analysts say an 8 percent royalty fee could cripple the state's competitiveness with other markets.

Early in the conversation, Obama confronted a question about his race, religion and the portrayal of him as a rookie senator who bumbles important foreign policy stances. Obama called it part of the "hazing process of being a presidential candidate."

"You're right, I am a black guy," he told the audience member. "I'm actually a member of the Trinity United Church of Christ and have been for 20 years. And you're right, the press is trying to play up the fact I've got a funny name."

But he refused to back away from the comments he made in a foreign policy speech last week that has earned him rebukes from his opponents as well as the U.S. State Department.

"I made a simple proposition that I'd like anybody here to challenge me on," he said. "If the government of Pakistan knows that bin Laden is in their northwestern territory, and those folks who killed 3,000 Americans are training to attack us again, then if we had actionable intelligence in terms of taking them out and we couldn't get the government of Pakistan to act, we should act."

The audience cheered.

"When he's talking about Pakistan, that's the truth," said Gary Stultz of Spring Creek. "That is what we should be doing."

Regarding inexperience, Obama said his leadership ability shouldn't be measured by time in Washington, D.C.

In an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal after his talk, Obama said critics who have called for him to be silent on the issue are self-serving.

"I absolutely think this should be part of the debate and I think the Bush administration's statements have been entirely self serving on this front," he said. "If we can't talk about the number one national security threat that we face, then I don't know how the American people are going to make a serious decision about how we move forward."

He also expressed concern about the thousands of acres of rangeland destroyed by wildfires in Elko County this season. He said the federal government must meet the danger wildfires pose to areas like Elko County on two fronts.

"We've got a short-term challenge and a long-term challenge," he said. "The short term challenge is to see if there are ways we are managing these lands that are encouraging wildfires. What are our grazing policies and are they optimal to controlling wildfires?"

The bigger challenge is reversing global warming, he said.

"If we are seeing significant changes in weather patterns as a consequence of global warming, then we've got to see this as part of a generational challenge that involves changing our energy policy."

Obama, who represents a state rich in coal resources, took a position contrary to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid's recent condemnation of coal-fired power plants. Reid has vowed to stop the construction of three such plants are scheduled to be built in Nevada.

"My general view is that we've got to have a strong cap and trade system, rather than just announce a ban on all coal-powered plants," Obama said. "Then you've just created a huge disincentive for those who don't have a way of making that coal burn cleaner."

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