BUTTE, MONT — . -- Barack Obama, who once considered flag pins a shallow symbol, can't surround himself with enough patriotic trappings these days.
At the Fourth of July parade here, Obama sat in the reviewing stand with his wife and two young daughters, admiring the simple floats dedicated to rescue workers and local high schools.
He seldom goes out in public now without a flag pin stuck in his lapel. He devoted an entire speech to patriotism this week in Independence, Mo. Visually reinforcing the message, he stood in front of a quartet of large American flags.
None of this is an accident. Polling shows that on the threshold test any serious presidential candidate must pass, Obama has ground to cover.
A CNN poll released one day after the Illinois senator gave his patriotism speech showed that a quarter of registered voters surveyed questioned Obama's love of country. Nearly 30% of the respondents who described themselves as independents -- a coveted slice of the electorate -- believed he lacks patriotism, according to the survey.
So Obama wants to convince voters that he is every bit as patriotic as his Republican opponent. That's not an easy sell: Arizona Sen. John McCain, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
Obama's biography is more unconventional. He has no military experience, and he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia with his mother and her second husband, an Indonesian. He is asking voters to accept a more nuanced definition of patriotism as he makes the case that the lack of military credentials shouldn't disqualify him from the Oval Office.
When the flag-pin issue arose in October, Obama said he had made a deliberate choice not to wear one shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks because he believed the pins had become a "substitute for, I think, true patriotism."
"You start noticing people wearing a lapel pin but not acting very patriotic," he said then. "Not voting to provide veterans with resources that they need. Not voting to make sure that disability payments were coming out on time."
On Friday, speaking to Montanans at an Independence Day picnic, he said that the policies a president advances are the ultimate measure of patriotism.
Invoking the condition of today's war veterans, he said: "We have to make sure that when veterans come home we greet them with honor and the respect they deserve. No more begging for disability payments. No more waiting in line for hours. No more driving to facilities that are too far away. No more tolerance for homeless veterans.
"That's how we show, on this Fourth of July, our patriotism."
People who came to see him at Butte's burger-and-dogs barbecue seemed convinced. Several said in interviews that the issue of patriotism would not influence their vote. In any case, they said, Obama is patriotic enough to suit them.
Ann Shea, 47, an attorney who lives in Butte, said the nation faces hardships that trump patriotism.
"The issue is, we're paying almost five bucks a gallon in gas, we're in a war we shouldn't be in, and the current administration, which is the one McCain will carry on, is just lying to the American people to get what they want," she said. "Obama's not about that."
Stressing patriotism serves another practical goal: Obama's campaign hopes to rewrite the electoral map, snagging a few states that have voted Republican in recent presidential elections. If Obama succeeds, he won't need to rely so much on victories intraditional battlegrounds such as Florida and Ohio.
This week, Obama visited North Dakota, Montana, Colorado and Missouri, emphasizing family values and patriotism. His campaign understands that he needs to look reassuring and familiar -- like a patriot.
Montana's Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, said in an interview Friday that Obama struggled in his early life in ways that Montanans can appreciate. Schweitzer said it was unfair to paint Obama, with his Harvard Law degree and Ivy League pedigree, as elite.
He "grew up being raised by a single mother and grandparents when she didn't have enough resources," the governor said. "This is what happens in politics. You cannot in any way measure Barack Obama's life and call him elite."
Obama likes to say that words matter. But he knows that pictures matter too.
On this Fourth of July, Obama was not merely talking like a patriot. As he watched the parade -- and as a battery of cameras recorded his reactions -- he clutched in his hand a tiny American flag.