MISSOULA – They came from all over to see him, some driving hundreds of miles from across the state, others waking up at dawn and simply walking across campus.
U.S. Sen. Barack Obama was in their backyard and they weren’t going to miss it.
About 8,000 people packed into the Adams Center on the University of Montana campus Saturday morning to watch the Democratic presidential candidate’s rally. Hundreds of others were turned away at the front door and were left to watch the speech on the big screen at nearby Washington-Grizzly Stadium, UM’s football field.
Despite chilly temperatures, hundreds of people were already waiting in line by 7 a.m. Jeff Lasher, a freshman at the UM, was the first. He showed up at midnight with nothing but a thin sweatshirt, gloves and a hat, along with a piece of cardboard to sleep on. It snowed on him all night.
“I know this is history in the making,” Lasher said after the speech. “America needs change and he’s the man.”
Lasher added: “He gave me a fist pound – I’m still shaking from it.”
The speech drew everybody from political enthusiasts to people who are only now interested in politics because of Obama. John Matthews of Ovando said he has never attended a political rally before but felt, after keeping track of the Illinois senator throughout the primary, he couldn’t pass up this opportunity.
“I had some tears,” Matthews said after Obama’s speech. “How inspirational. I’ve never worked for a candidate in my life but I’ll work for that guy.”
Before Obama came onstage, Missoula Mayor John Engen announced that “it was a really good day” for Missoula while reiterating his earlier endorsement for Obama. Shortly afterward, event staff removed the podium from the stage and cleared the way for Obama, who spoke without using notes and paced the stage while speaking.
Obama marveled at the beauty of Montana, mentioning that he should get waders and learn to fly-fish. He used that as a way to get into his environmental and energy policies, describing the urgent need to protect the nation’s natural beauty.
Toward the beginning of the speech, Obama responded to critics who argue he is too inexperienced to run for president. Employing a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., Obama said he, along with the rest of the nation, can’t afford to wait because of the “fierce urgency of now,” which drew cheers.
As he spoke, a man in the crowd yelled: “We can’t wait!” It was one of many instances in which audience members directly addressed the senator. Periodically and randomly throughout the speech people would scream, “We love you!”
Both Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton were in Montana over the weekend to make their presence felt before Montana’s June 3 primary election. In this year’s tight Democratic primary race, the candidates aren’t taking any delegates for granted.
When Obama spoke of his opposition to the Iraq war, the crowd erupted. He stressed that not only does he want to end the war, but he was against it from the beginning, a stance he has emphasized throughout his campaign. He touched on other standard talking points, such as tax breaks for lower income people, the importance of improving education and an affordable healthcare system.
He also talked about the importance of improving the plight of American Indians, a point that hits home here in Montana. There was a strong turnout of American Indians at the speech.
And, of course, he spoke of hope and overcoming difficult circumstances. Reminding the audience of the unlikely path he has traveled to become a presidential hopeful, he said, “the odds of me standing here are so slim.”
Lindsay Theo, a graduate student at UM and a Chicago native, said she had seen Obama speak before but was particularly moved by his Missoula appearance.
“It was so much better than my wildest dreams,” Theo said. “He speaks so eloquently without being overwritten.”
Support for Obama showed no age discrimination at the Adams Center. One young girl, perched on her father’s shoulders, raised a “Change We Can Believe In” sign every time the crowd clapped. Several people had their babies with them on the ground level. And Taylor Lennox, a sophomore at Missoula Hellgate High School, said he will now closely follow politics.
“I’m totally amazed,” Lennox said. “Just butterflies in my stomach – totally inspirational.”
At the end of Obama’s roughly 50-minute speech, he thanked the raucous crowd for attending, raised his arms and walked off the stage with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” booming through the stadium speakers.
Shortly before he finished, he emphasized the importance of the upcoming election.
“This is our moment,” he said. “This is our time.”
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