SPRINGFIELD, Ill.—Walking in Lincoln's footsteps, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois Saturday declared his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination with a vow to change politics and unify a divided people around common goals such as fighting terrorism and expanding health care.
"We can build a more hopeful America," Obama said in front of the former Illinois capitol building.
"And that is why, in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a house divided to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still live, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America."
More than a thousand supporters braved 13-degree cold to cheer on Obama, a man they see as the first African-American with a very real chance of winning the White House. His father was an African-American originally from Kenya, his mother a white woman from Kansas.
Indeed, as Obama enters a growing field of candidates eager to lead the post-Bush era, he carries surprising strength for a newcomer to the national stage—but also with vulnerabilities that rivals such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico will seek to exploit incoming weeks and months.
He offers a new, more civil approach to politics that appeals to voters weary of the partisan battles in Washington. Unlike rivals, for example, he did not criticize President Bush by name Saturday.
Yet the 45-year-old has less experience in national politics than most of the other candidates—just two years so far in the U.S. Senate after seven years in the Illinois Senate.
That's a big reason he chose to kick off his campaign in Springfield rather than his hometown of Chicago—hoping to remind people that Lincoln also had served just two years in Congress and a comparable eight years in the Illinois legislature before winning the White House.
"I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington," Obama said. "But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."
Obama reminded people that he did have a record in the legislature—working to reform the death penalty, expand health care coverage for children, regulating ethics.
He also outlined the broad contours of his agenda, including:
_Starting to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq with a goal of bringing them all home by March 2008.
_Giving everyone in the country health care coverage—and reining in soaring healthcare costs—by the end of his first term.
_Curbing reliance on oil and capping the emissions of industrial emissions that cause global warming.
_Improving care and benefits for veterans.
_Boosting job training, guaranteeing a living wage, and ending poverty.
He did not provide details to his proposals; nor have his opponents for the nomination. Clinton, for example, told Iowa Democrats two weeks ago she's weighing several different approaches to universal healthcare.
Rather, he used the speech to set his campaign's broad themes.
In a tone reminiscent of Bill Clinton's first campaign, Obama insisted that government alone will not solve those problems.
"More money and programs alone will not get us where we need to go," he said. "Each of us, in our own lives, will have to accept responsibility, for instilling an ethic of achievement in our children, for adapting to a more competitive economy, for strengthening our communities, and sharing some measure of sacrifice."
And he argued that a new politics, more than new policies, is needed to fix pressing problems. Obama spoke repeatedly of a new generation, one that's freed of political divisions that date back to the 1960s and works pragmatically to solve problems.
"We know the challenges. We've heard them. We've talked about them for years," he said.
"What's stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What's stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics—the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems."
He delivered the speech two days before Lincoln's birthday, in front of the building where Lincoln in 1858 warned that the country could not survive half slave and half free, the famous "house divided" speech.
Obama wrote the speech himself over the last 7-10 days, and rehearsed it with a teleprompter Friday evening in the basement of the Old State Capitol, according to his spokesman, Robert Gibbs.
Gibbs also said the ties to Lincoln were deliberate—but not meant to imply that Obama put himself in Lincoln's league. "This isn't a comparison," Gibbs said. "We're just hoping to borrow a little of that" Lincoln aura.
For more on his campaign, www.barackobama.com
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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