Presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., spoke to an enthusiastic crowd at the Lundholm Gym at UNH. (Photo by Don Clark)
DURHAM -- If anyone doubted that politics is a spectator sport in this state, all they needed to do was walk into the Lundholm Gymnasium at the University of New Hampshire on Monday. People of all ages were literally stacked to the rafters for a chance to hear first-term Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama speak.
And if Obama thought politics was just a spectator sport in New Hampshire, after a seventh-grader from Exeter questioned him about his position on immigration he learned quickly that Granite Staters were more than willing to ask the tough questions. Some he sidestepped, but others he answered head-on.
One of those sidestepped was a question about how he would handle the threat of nuclear weapons development in North Korea and Iran.
While agreeing that America was currently "in as dangerous a place as we've been since the 1960s," Obama turned the conversation toward developing a new non-proliferation treaty that would allow nations to develop nuclear energy, but prohibit weapons proliferation.
Asked about shifting national spending priorities away from some outdated military weapons systems and toward domestic needs, Obama talked about federal budgets being "all about priorities" and something that "reflects our values as a country."
However, he warned that military spending would have to increase in the short term.
"Initially, because of the war in Iraq, we will have to make some investment to bring the military back to where it was before," Obama told the approximately 3,500 people who filed the gymnasium.
He noted that when National Guard units are sent overseas, they take their equipment with them and leave it in the theater of war. That leaves no equipment to deal with emergencies at home, such as terrorist attacks and even natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the Illinois senator said.
A question concerning his experience brought what has become Obama's stock answer.
"I've been in Washington for two years," he said. "If your criteria for leadership is how long I've been in Washington, then I'm not your candidate.
"But I've been in Washington long enough to know things have to change."
However, in addition to that answer, the candidate said he considered his seven years in his state's Legislature relevant experience, as well as his work as a community organizer in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago. He said his teaching experience was also a plus.
"There are people who think being a constitutional law professor is relevant experience, particularly because the Constitution has been ignored the past six years," he said.
Obama told the audience that he does not favor legalizing gay marriage.
"It's going to be very hard to build consensus around marriage -- using that word -- but that doesn't prevent us from extending all the civil rights inherent in marriage to gays and lesbians in committed relationships," he said.
The focal point of the work he's done in his career and his candidacy for president, Obama said, lies in building consensus. He made that clear when he was asked how he would get the support of conservatives without losing his more liberal base.
"I think we make assumptions about divisions in our society that are the creation of the media," he said. "This country is a lot more complicated than we see on TV."
He cited his friendship with pastor Rick Warren, an evangelical Christian who leads the huge Saddleback Church in Lake Forrest, Calif. Warren's invitation to Obama, who is pro-choice, to speak at a conference on AIDS in Africa at the church, raised the eyebrows of many evangelicals across the country.
Obama said he talked about moral issues, such as the treatment of African women at the hands of African men, how casual sex was in that part of the world and how that precipitated the spread of the deadly disease.
"Then I said that the notion that God would rather see people die than see people wear condoms is contrary to my theology," Obama recounted. "At the end of my speech, I got a standing ovation."
Obama said that even on the issue of abortion, there are areas of common interest among people with conflicting views. While some may not agree with his pro-choice view, "we can all agree there is a need to reduce unwanted pregnancies and to make adoption a real option for people," he said.
After spending about 90 minutes talking to the UNH crowd, Obama urged them to get involved.
"If you like what you've heard, go to my Web site -- go listen to the other candidates," he said. "The other candidates are not my rivals in this race -- cynicism is my rival."
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