Obama seeks foothold in America's heartland

Kansas City StarJanuary 29, 2008 

Barack Obama receives the endorsement of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in El Dorado, Kansas.

DAVID EULITT / KANSAS CITY STAR / MCT

EL DORADO, Kan. — No "wild Muslim" here.

Two-thirds of the way through his speech at Municipal Auditorium Tuesday night, Democrat Barack Obama took on the vicious, underground campaign being waged against him on the Internet through bogus e-mails.

"There are e-mails going out that I’m a wild Muslim and I don’t pledge allegiance to the flag," Obama told the crowd.

"I pledge allegiance to the flag," he said with a broad smile, just to show he knew the words.

Laughs and cheers erupted from the wildly enthusiastic crowd of some 6,000 that braved biting winds to see the man who’s battling Hillary Clinton for supremacy among the Democrats.

Then he said he’d been "praying to Jesus" -- with humorous down-home inflection -- all his life. This was to emphasize his Christian roots.

Black ministers standing behind laughed and egged him on. He turned to them.

"I’m not a preacher," he quipped.

One week from Missouri’s Feb. 5 presidential primary and Kansas’ Democratic caucus, Obama spent much of his time promising a massive expansion in health-care coverage, an end to the war in Iraq and transformation of schools and universities into world-class institutions.

Throughout his 50-minute talk, he made liberal use of the political word of the year.

"All these things are possible if you are ready for change." It was he, insisted the senator of Illinois, who started the much-copied "change" craze.

Noting his huge win in South Carolina -- where record numbers of Democrats and independents turned out again -- he said, "there is an energy and an excitement and electricity to this election."

Obama reached back to his maternal roots in the morning, visiting El Dorado, Kan. There he scooped up a much-anticipated endorsement from Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to go along with the backing he received Monday from Caroline Kennedy and her uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Sebelius and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri accompanied Obama to Kansas and then to Kansas City. Obama, asserted Sebelius, inherited those "Midwestern values" so important to Kansas voters.

Never mind that his grandparents moved West with his young mother and she married a Kenyan, his father, or that Obama spent his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia.

"He got them from his grandparents and his mother," Sebelius said in her brief speech before an overflow crowd of 2,500 people at Butler Community College. "He will lead with those values."

Obama told that audience that his success sprang from the hopes of his forebears.

"My grandparents held on to a simple dream, that they would raise my mother in a land of boundless dreams," the freshman senator said. "I am standing here today because that dream was realized."

The El Dorado event underscored the personal narrative of Obama’s campaign -- a young multiracial candidate promising the politics of unification -- and his try for Kansas’ 41 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

Never mind that his grandparents would move west with his young mother, that she would marry a Kenyan, his father, and he would spend his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia.

The candidate, asserted Gov. Kathleen Sebelius Tuesday, inherited those "Midwestern values" so important to Kansas voters.

"He got them from his grandparents and his mother," Sebelius said in her brief speech that gave him her endorsement before an overflow crowd of more than 2,500 people.

"He will lead with those values."

Beginning his one-day, two-stop swing through Kansas and Kansas City — both places where Democrats will caucus or cast ballots in a week — Obama told the excited audience that his success sprang from the hopes of his forebears.

"My grandparents held on to a simple dream, that they would raise my mother in a land of boundless dreams," the senator from Illinois said. "I am standing here today because that dream was realized."

The event underscored the personal narrative of Obama's campaign — a multiracial candidate promising the politics of unification — and his push to win much of Kansas' 41 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

Unlike Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards, Obama has dispatched nearly two dozen staffers to organize for the state's caucuses a week away.

Kansas will hold 50 caucuses in 45 locations, requiring many voters in the central and western part of the state to travel an hour or more to stand up for a candidate. That could mean enthusiasm and organization will play an outsized role in the contest. Next door, both parties will have primaries as well.

Obama's fiery speech at Butler Community College aimed at generating fervor from his life story.

His maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham, attended El Dorado high school and married the candidate's grandmother, Madelyn Payne, a young woman from nearby Augusta, in the 1930s. Dunham would go on to serve in World War II while his wife worked on a defense assembly line. She gave birth to Obama's mother at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

They later moved to Hawaii, where their daughter would marry Kenyan Barack Obama Sr. — who lead a largely absentee life in the future presidential candidate's upbringing.

In a speech that dwelled largely on economic issues, he said the financial underpinnings of an American dream of opportunity are in jeopardy.

"Our economy is out of balance," he said, more capable of delivering millions in bonuses to captains of industry than solid education and affordable health insurance to working families.

He declared himself best capable of restoring that promise, ticking off a series of reforms he promised to deliver should he become president.

The stimulus package pounded out by President Bush and congressional leaders last week, and still pending on Capitol Hill, will pump up the economy and give relief to the working class, Obama said. Yet he said it should do more to help retirees and boost long-term unemployment benefits.

"We have to restore fairness and balance to our economy."

First, he called for an end to the Bush tax cuts that he said give disproportionate breaks to the wealthy.

"We cannot afford more George Bush tax cuts for those who don't need them and weren't asking for them," Obama said. "It is time to give tax relief to middle class families."

Specifically, he called for tax credits to offset ballooning mortgage payments and to stem the tide of defaulting home loans.

He also pledged to eliminate income taxes on retirees making less than $50,000 a year.

"We'll save them money, save them time, look after them the way we're supposed to," Obama said.

He repeated his plan to impose yearly increases in the minimum wage, to set up tax-free savings accounts for low-income families that draw matching funds from the federal government.

Paired with college tuition tax credits of up to $4,000 a year, Obama said those kinds of measures would support a continuing expectation of Americans that they can offer their children a better life.

He said his grandfather's benefits from the G.I. bill that sent a generation of veterans to college, and his working mother's short-term reliance on food stamps made it possible for him and his sister to prosper.

"My mother was still able to send my sister and me to the best schools in this country," he said. "It's an American story. It's a story of red states and blue states. My story could only happen in the United States of America."

Sebelius' endorsement, coming on the heels of her low-key speech in the Democratic response to President Bush's final State of the Union, also rang an upbeat note keeping with the Illinois senator's campaign themes of hope and change.

His appearance in Kansas, to be followed by a mid-day speech in Kansas City, came on the heels of his convincing win Saturday in the South Carolina primaries and his endorsement Monday from Sen. Ted Kennedy.

That political celebrity drew people from El Dorado and Wichita, many of whom formed a line as long as a city block and snaking through the community college campus in near blizzard conditions Tuesday morning.

"We had to see him," said Rosalyn Brooks, a 17-year-old high school student who missed classes to come with her 23-year-old brother Larry. "I'm just so excited."

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