LOUISVILLE — The week before Kentucky’s Democratic presidential primary, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama gave a general election speech that hit at likely GOP nominee John McCain while also laying out policy goals and emphasizing the campaign’s theme of change.
Obama, speaking in Kentucky for the first time since an August rally in Lexington, repeatedly coaxed roars from the 8,000 who flooded into the Kentucky International Convention Center. With his sleeves rolled up, he talked at times as if the first phase of his run for the White House was complete.
“I was betting on you, the American people. I was convinced that people were tired of politics that are all about tearing each other down,” Obama said. “I was convinced that the American people — they didn’t want spin. They wanted straight talk, honesty and truthfulness.”
“I’m here to report back to you, Louisville, that my bet has paid off,” he said to kick off his 40-minute speech.
Obama has been campaigning of late with one foot in the primary — in addition to the Kentucky stop Monday he spoke in West Virginia, where voters go to the polls Tuesday — and the other foot in the general election.
He has stops planned this week in Missouri, Michigan and Florida, all likely key battleground states in November. Michigan and Florida also are the center of controversy within the Democratic Party over how to seat those states’ delegates after being sanctioned for moving their primaries to January.
Obama also cancelled a Tuesday campaign appearance in Lexington to return to Washington for votes. It’s unclear whether Obama will be back to Kentucky before Democrats vote May 20.
Meanwhile, the campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is leading Obama in the state by 27 points in the Herald-Leader/WKYT Kentucky Poll, continued to plug away in the Bluegrass State. Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton stumped for her mom in Eastern Kentucky and at a Women for Hillary event in Lexington on Monday.
But in his speech Monday, Obama barely mentioned Clinton except to compliment her as a “capable, smart, hard working, intelligent candidate.”
He then returned his remarks to the Republicans.
“Whatever the differences between myself and her, they pale in comparison to the differences we’ve got with George W. Bush,” he said. “They are nothing compared to the differences we have with John McCain.”
And when Obama explained that he opposes a proposed federal gas tax holiday for being “a gimmick,” he singled out McCain even though Clinton also supports the plan.
“It was designed to get John McCain to the next election instead of solving the problem” of high gas prices, Obama said, adding that McCain is “running for George Bush’s third term.”
“He basically has the same policies George Bush has pursued,” he said. “He wants to continue this war in Iraq.”
Obama criticized the war for “distracting” from fighting al-Qaida and costing thousands of American lives.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler of Versailles, in his remarks to warm up the crowd, also took aim at the likely GOP nominee, saying the Republicans are “going to put up John insane, uh, McCain.”
Republicans, in response, have ramped up their rhetoric against Obama in recent days. The Republican National Committee issued a statement slamming Obama for overpromising, which the GOP claimed will increase taxes.
“If Barack Obama can’t see why increased government spending and higher taxes would hurt Bluegrass voters then he obviously doesn’t understand our economy,” said Katie Wright of the RNC.
During his wide-ranging speech, Obama outlined his promises of providing $40,000 worth of college tuition assistance in exchange for students participating in volunteer service, lowering health insurance premiums by $2,500 a year and offering tax rebates to middle-class families paid for by “closing some of these corporate tax loopholes.”
He also candidly told the crowd that he stumbled during the primary.
“There have been times when we kind of lost what this campaign is about,” he said. “When you’ve been whacked enough times you kind of get ... ” He let his words trail off, and his supporters responded with a roar of encouragement.
Many who attended said even though Obama trails in Kentucky polls, they expect him to gain support as more voters get to know him.
“I think there are a lot of people who aren’t ready for Barack Obama because he doesn’t look like the typical politician they’re used to,” said Brittney Hunt, a University of Louisville senior from Mount Sterling. “It’s his race. It’s that he’s young. It’s that he’s different in general.”