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Baltimore Sun - Obama Gets Rock-Star Welcome in Baltimore, at UM

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Baltimore Sun - Obama Gets Rock-Star Welcome in Baltimore, at UM
Candidates make final appearances before today's primaries

Sen. Barack Obama got a rock star's welcome from supporters in College Park and Baltimore yesterday, stirring his supporters into a frenzy on the eve of Maryland's presidential primary.

With trademark themes of hope and change, Obama quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., pledged to end the war in Iraq and applauded young people for their unprecedented turnout in this year's nominating contests.

"I am running because of what Dr. King called the 'fierce urgency of now,'" Obama said to a raucous crowd of about 20,000 at the Comcast Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. "And that hour is upon us."

In College Park, Obama said he could transcend divisive politics and better reform health care, fortify the economy and improve America's image abroad than his Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton. He said the New York senator has characterized herself as "tough" enough to battle Republicans.

"The last thing we need is the same old cast of characters," he said.

"I may be skinny," he added. "But I'm tough, too."

Obama also took jabs at the presumptive Republican nominee.

"I'm looking forward to mixing it up with John McCain," he said. "But he's on the wrong side of the issues. ... I am happy to have an argument with a Republican. Not only that, I think I can get some Republican votes."

Then, as if on cue, Will Capps, 46, rose from the audience and waved.

"There's one right there," said Obama. "They call them Obamacans."

After the College Park speech, Capps, who lives in Laurel, enjoyed a few minutes of celebrity, posing for photos with fellow Obama fans and flashing his Republican voter registration card for reporters. He said he began volunteering for the Obama campaign two weeks ago based on the senator's position on Iraq. Capps said he was influenced by the opinion of his nephew, who recently returned from serving in Iraq, and believes the war should end.

"I think this country needs something different," Capps said. "He's a great guy."

The student-heavy crowd roared when Obama spoke of tuition credits for college students and cackled when he paused mid-sentence to give a shout-out to the Maryland women's basketball team, which walked behind the stage.

At the start of his speech, when a young woman screamed "I love you!" the Illinois senator grinned sheepishly and said, "I love you back."

Supporters began lining up outside the Comcast Center in the frosty pre-dawn hours. Doors opened at 9:30 a.m., but Obama didn't take the stage until 1 p.m. In the interim, the giddy crowd, which including retirees, college students and families with babies in tow, danced to Motown tunes and hip-hop hits.

"He's electrifying," said Tamil Lloyd, 30, of Capital Heights, who stood in her front row seat for Obama's entire speech. "I heard him speak at Prince George's Community College last fall and afterward, I thought, 'How could anyone not vote for him?' "

Lloyd, who arrived with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law at the arena at 7:30 a.m. - five hours before Obama took the stage - said the family was still working on her converting her husband, a Clinton devotee.

"Oh, he's going to vote for him," she said. "His mother said so."

Linda Hollidge, 61, of Round Hill, Va., admitted she attended the rally to see if Obama would live up to his hype.

"I wanted to see if I got that feeling they say you get in his presence," she said. "Our country hasn't felt it in a hell of a long time."

Obama's appearance before more than 10,000 screaming supporters at 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore was even more raucous than his speech in College Park.

Although he kept the audience waiting for 2 1/2 hours, Mayor Sheila Dixon and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings kept the crowd stamping and cheering through the afternoon.

"Fired up! Fired up! Fired up!" Cummings screamed, his voice strained, as hundreds of people waved blue "Change We Can Believe In" signs in front of the stage.

The supporters here were older and more working-class than at the University of Maryland campus, but they did not lack energy. They raised their arms to do the wave around the filled stadium, with one end of the arena shouting "Change!" then the next, "Obama," then finally "Now!"

When Obama finally took the stage, he adopted slightly more folksy language than at the college, throwing a "y'all" into his speech and a "Don't mess with me" when he talked about how the Clintons didn't think he was tough enough to take on McCain.

Much of his speech was the same as at College Park, but he made his case for universal health care by adding a personal touch he didn't reveal to the younger crowd earlier in the day.

He said he would forbid insurance companies to deny people coverage because of pre-existing illnesses. And he said he knew how stressful this can be, because, he said, his mother died of cancer, anxious the whole time because her insurance company was trying to deny payments."

"This is personal for me," Obama told the Baltimore audience.

"My mother died of cancer when she was 53 years old. ... To see her read insurance forms ... and watch the worry on her face. To watch a loved one suffer not because they are sick, but because the health care system is broken, that is wrong," he said.

He also pledged to spend some of the money being spent on the Iraq war on cities like Baltimore: "We need to invest in the cities of America. If we can spend [billions of dollars] in Iraq, we can spend some of that money right here in Baltimore."

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