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Billings Gazette - Obama Wows 'Em: Illinois Senator Excites Crowd at West, Crow

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Billings Gazette - Obama Wows 'Em: Illinois Senator Excites Crowd at West, Crow

How well did Barack Obama connect with onlookers at his West High town hall meeting?

He got a standing ovation Monday for calling for more school, more homework and on a 70-degree day less than two weeks before graduation.

When he declared that no military veteran in America should ever be reduced to sleeping on the street in a cardboard box, the crowd roared as if they'd all, at some point, put cheek to concrete in exhaustion.

Even when the boo birds booed, which they did when Obama evoked high oil prices and tax breaks for the rich, their catcalls flattered the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The Illinois senator told the packed venue of 3,000 that he was running for what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called "the fierce urgency of the now."

"We're at a defining moment of history, at two wars, one against al-Qaida in Afghanistan. We're also involved in a war that I believe should have never been authorized and never been waged, the war in Iraq."

The crowd, which had formed a line for entry more than two hours before Obama spoke, roared with agreement.

The first presidential candidate of either party to visit Billings this year, Obama spent half of his hourlong appearance answering questions from onlookers such as 13-year-old Damus Ard, who wanted to know what Obama would do as president to boost the economy on American Indian reservations.

Recognizing the sensitive politics of tribal sovereignty, Obama prefaced his answer by saying that any federal help offered to the tribes would have to be negotiated between governments. He then said the Bureau of Indian Affairs needed to work with other federal government agencies to provide high-quality housing on American Indian reservations. The candidate also tackled Indian health care, which he said was terrible and increasingly underfunded.

Health care in general was a recurring theme of the Obama event. When one local business owner said she now paid $1,700 a month insuring herself and three employees, Obama said he planned to lower premiums by shifting the burden of catastrophic illness coverage onto the government. But he also called for insurance industry reforms to be made by Congress, openly, on C-SPAN, so Americans could scrutinize any deals brokered between their lawmakers and the health insurance lobby.

"The health insurance system will bankrupt America if we don't get a handle on the costs," Obama said.

But the candidate's call for "doing the public's business in public" didn't end with televised health care reform. Obama said he would put an end to presidential signing statements. The statements are something like a footnote by the president expressing his intention not to enforce legislation signed by Congress. President Bush has issued more than 150 signing statements in nearly eight years.

The candidate also said he would not allow members of his staff to lobby for past employers or to return to the White House as lobbyists after leaving his staff.

Much of what Obama said Monday was essentially campaign boilerplate, things he has reiterated at town hall meetings and rallies over the past 15 months. However, he is assuming the role of presumptive Democratic nominee.

Obama spoke only favorably about his opponent, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. He assured the audience that once the Democratic primary battle ended, his campaign and Clinton's would unify behind the party nominee.

With just four primary races left, including Montana's on June 3, Obama zeroed in on Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Obama repeatedly associated McCain, a decorated Navy veteran and former Vietnam War prisoner of war, with the policies of the Bush presidency, asserting that electing McCain would essentially mean four more years of Bush policies on war and the economy.

"Whatever happens in November, the name George Bush isn't going to be on the ballot, and that means we've got to make sure Mr. Bush's policies aren't on the ballot," Obama said. "I respect and honor John McCain's service to our country. He's a respected war hero, but John McCain has decided to run for George Bush's third term."

The candidate criticized Bush for refusing to talk with Iran about that country's nuclear program. Both Bush and McCain have said Obama is wrong for saying he would negotiate.

Iran is a great threat, Obama said. It has a nuclear program, is a threat to Israel and denies the Holocaust. It also threatens American interests in Iraq, but not negotiating with Iran has made Iran stronger, Obama said.

"What George Bush and John McCain are demanding is that a country meets all your conditions before you meet," Obama said. "That's not a strategy, that's naive and wishful thinking."

Presidents Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy negotiated with the Soviet Union when its missiles were pointed at the United States. Diplomacy is needed with Iran, Obama said, before missiles enter into the picture.

McCain responded to the remarks by saying that Iran did not deserve the kind of summit negotiations used with the Soviet Union.

"An unconditional summit meeting with the next American president would confer both international legitimacy on the Iranian president and could strengthen him domestically when he is unpopular among the Iranian people," McCain said in a written statement. "It is likely such a meeting would not only fail to persuade him to abandon Iran's nuclear ambitions; its support of terrorists and commitment to Israel's extinction, it could very well convince him that those policies are succeeding in strengthening his hold on power, and embolden him to continue his very dangerous behavior."

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