Monday, February 04, 2008

Obama wows, inspires crowd at packed arena.

'And they told me there were no Democrats in Idaho'

Edition Date: 02/03/08

Jaliya Cunningham might have been the youngest person in Taco Bell Arena Saturday, decades away from casting a vote and certainly indifferent to the commotion around her.
But her parents weren't going to let the 2-month-old miss what they say is history in the making.

"This is something we'll be able to tell her about when she grows up," said Shellie Cunningham Jr., Jaliya's father.

Just three days before the Idaho Democratic caucus, Sen. Barack Obama spoke to an arena-record crowd of 14,169 people - almost triple the nearly 5,000 Democrats who caucused statewide in 2004.

"And they told me there were no Democrats in Idaho," Obama said at the beginning of his 45-minute speech.

The crowd validated Obama's decision to visit Republican-dominated Idaho before the all-important Super Tuesday. Democrats in 22 states will decide between Obama, from Illinois, and New York Sen. Hilary Clinton.

Obama's upbeat speech validated the decision many made to wake before dawn and line up in frigid temperatures to get a seat or stand in the aisles.

"There's something about him, something about what he has to say that people want to hear," said Steve Lolar, a 38-year-old Boise State student.

People gave many reasons for coming to Taco Bell Arena - to be part of Obama's history-making run for president; to make up their minds before Tuesday's caucus; or to catch a glimpse of a candidate frequently described as a "rock star."

Even after arena officials opened more seating, they had to turn several thousand more people away.

"I've lived in Idaho nearly 32 years, and this is the first chance I've had to see a presidential candidate, especially a Democrat," said Andrea Leevs, a Boise social worker.

Hand-painted banners hung from every seating level. Tubas from the Borah High School band glinted. Introduced by former Gov. Cecil Andrus, Obama took the stage to a long, loud ovation, flashed his now-familiar smile and thanked his local supporters for their work.

The speech held no surprises - except, perhaps, for Obama equating his long-shot status to that of the Boise State football team.

"It's fun being an underdog," said Obama. He leads Clinton in Idaho but is running closely behind her in most polls.

Obama offered a general call for national change and hope and laid out specific proposals on the economy and energy policy.

He touted the need for improved health care and educational systems. He called this a "defining moment in history" when the country needs to pay attention to a planet in environmental peril, find a way to exit the Iraq War, and support teachers and veterans.

The themes are Obama stump-speech standards, but they repeatedly brought the Boise crowd to its feet.

"The war is my main concern," said Shellie Cunningham. "Our brothers and sisters are dying daily. Why?"

Francine Gonzalez also wanted to hear Obama's thoughts on the war.

"I have young sons," said Gonzalez.

She's undecided but glad Obama visited the state.

"Usually, they don't come here, or if they do, it is for a fundraiser that costs $250 a ticket." she said. "It's not an opportunity for everyday people."

Marsha Meredith of Boise has never been involved with politics before, but Obama's speech made her cry.

"I'm so happy right now," she said. "Everything he said about supporting teachers, and schools, the environment, I've been waiting so many years for this and have had nowhere to go."

Clearly aware he was speaking in one of the reddest states in the union, Obama briefly touched on his Christian faith and support for the rights of gun owners, notably hunters.

The Clinton campaign questioned his consistency on gun ownership, and the Republican National Committee rebuked Obama for his positions on guns and foreign policy.

"As if his newly minted title of 'most liberal' senator was not enough, Barack Obama has enlisted the help of Ted Kennedy to advocate proposals that are out of touch with mainstream values," said Paul Lindsay, a regional press secretary for the RNC.

Obama said he has tried to reach out to conservatives and Republicans, citing his ability to work across party lines.

"We can disagree without being disagreeable," he said.

Ron Fortner, a history teacher at Caldwell High, first voted Republican in the 1960s, but got to the arena at 5:15 a.m. to see Obama.

"I was a Nixon man then. This year, I'm wide open," he said. "It's not often you get to see history."

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