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Obama's a huge draw, but a work in progress

February 12, 2007|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

AMES, IOWA — Soon enough the novelty will end, says Barack Obama. But not now. Not this weekend.

Over two days, tens of thousands of people turned out across Illinois and Iowa to see the freshly declared White House hopeful, spilling over city blocks and filling gymnasiums rafter-high with their red, white and blue posters, lusty cheers and wide-eyed fervor.

They came to see history, many said, to launch the journey of the most formidable black presidential candidate the nation has ever witnessed. They shouted out their affection and cheered the Democrat's call for a new style of politics -- bigger, bolder and more audacious, to borrow from the title of his best-selling autobiography, than Americans have seen in a long while.

But, truth be told, there was little that was really new or different about the issues Obama raised in his maiden swing as a formal presidential candidate.

Washington gridlock. Poison politics. Overweening special interests. Poverty, poor schools and an exorbitantly expensive healthcare system. Candidates cluck over them every presidential election.

Obama offered little in the way of concrete solutions. And most of the proposals he did throw out, like harnessing technology to bring greater efficiencies to the healthcare system, were hardly novel.

"Every campaign evolves," said David Axelrod, chief strategist of the Obama campaign. "Of course we'll address specific issues in detail along the way."

But, he went on, "This thing is not going to turn on whether his 10-point plan is better than someone else's 10-point plan." Rather, the presidential contest will be about leadership and the ability to inspire and motivate -- demonstrated, Axelrod said, by the ability "to get 7,000 people to come out to an arena in Ames, Iowa" nearly a year before the first vote of the 2008 campaign.

That may be so. But that did not prevent Obama from repeatedly emphasizing his stance on the war in Iraq, which promises to dominate early discussion in the Democratic primary just as it did four years ago.

At each stop, Obama noted that he had been against the war from the start, a distinction he drew with his chief rivals, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who initially backed the war before turning against it. Both claim they were misled. Obama told reporters Sunday his early opposition "indicates that even at the time it was possible to make judgments that this would not work out."

(Obama was forced to issue a clarification later Sunday after referring during an Iowa State rally to the "wasted" lives of more 3,000 U.S. troops killed in Iraq. "I was upset with myself," Obama said. "The sacrifices they are making are unbelievable. I meant to say that those sacrifices have not been honored by the same attention to strategy and diplomacy needed to be successful in Iraq.")

On Saturday night, in Waterloo, Iowa, Obama urged voters to demand of each candidate: "What is your plan? It's not enough to simply say, 'I'm going to end the war.' You've got to suggest how you're going to end the war."

Obama has called for a withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the end of March 2008. Asked at a Sunday news conference where he differs with Clinton, Obama acknowledged her opposition to the war but added, "I am not clear on how she would proceed at this point to wind down the war in a specific way."

A Clinton spokesman, Howard Wolfson, responded by calling the senator "a forceful critic of the Iraq war" who supports a phased redeployment of troops and opposes President Bush's plan to send additional forces. "Had she been president in October of 2002, she would not have started this war and if Congress doesn't end this war by January of 2009, as president, she will," Wolfson said.

As a candidate making his first run for national office, Obama is clearly a work in progress.

During his 20-minute news conference, he effectively took a clean-campaign pledge by saying he would point out issue differences with his rivals but never stoop to "ad hominem" attacks or "suggest that they have untoward motives."

He also showed some peevishness over the mostly friendly news coverage he has enjoyed to date, suggesting that portrayals of him as more dazzle than substance ignore a large body of speeches and other works that spell out his stance on issues and personal history in exhaustive detail. "You've been reporting on how I look in a swimsuit," he chided.

Throughout the weekend, before crowds that ranged from big to bigger, there was an easy banter between Obama and his audiences that created an intimacy even in Springfield, Ill., where more than 15,000 turned out for his formal announcement in subfreezing weather. "I know it's a little chilly," Obama began. A voice called out, "No, it's cold!" And the candidate broke into a wide grin.

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