BUTTE – The state’s Democrats flooded this storied mining town Saturday for back-to-back speeches from presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, reveling in a rare moment in the national political spotlight.
Obama, the senator from Illinois, was the first to address some 4,000 Montana Democrats gathered at the state party’s annual dinner to hear directly from the candidates on key issues in the West, including energy development and the environment.
Obama talked at length about the importance of Western states and said he recognized the unique politics in places like Montana, where tax-and-spend criticism can sting Democrats.
“I know Montana is fiercely independent, all Western states are,” Obama told the crowd. “We know government can’t solve all of our problems.”
In her speech, Clinton said she felt at home in Butte, invoking the city’s boom-and-bust history.
“Many times the national press and pundits have said, ‘Butte’s a goner.’ But you said, ‘No, we aren’t.’ And your progress today proves you were right,” Clinton said. “And I’m awfully happy to be among people who have the spunk, the courage and determination to stay in the fight, to keep fighting for a better tomorrow — and that’s the same spirit I’m bringing to this campaign.”
Butte has long been a stronghold for Montana Democrats and home to the blue-collar, “lunch-bucket” voters that have stuck with the party through thick and thin. The city, known for the exploits of copper kings and native son Evel Knievel, was electric with excitement.
“This is the largest, most significant political event in my lifetime,” said Steve Gallus, a state legislator from Butte.
With the event at the Butte Civic Center, the state’s Democrats had a chance to hear from Clinton and Obama in a race where the candidates may actually need some of the state’s 17 delegates at stake in the upcoming June 3 primary — one of the last in the nation.
“By holding the last primary, the ‘last best place’ is going to help choose the next president of the United States,” Clinton said.
The state’s eight superdelegates have remained largely uncommitted — although two have cast their support for Obama. The big names, Gov. Brian Schweitzer, along with Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, have all tiptoed carefully around the issue but attended the historic, Democratic event.
In his speech, Obama feted the trio — praising Baucus for his work on behalf of working-class Americans, joking about Tester’s trademark haircut and recognizing Schweitzer for “showing the way we are going to win back the West for Democrats.”
Clinton, with a tip of the hat to Schweitzer, said she will invest in alternative energy with the help of a “windfall profits tax” on big oil. She said the country needs to declare its independence from foreign oil.
“I want to be a president that is a good partner for Gov. Schweitzer and help tap into the renewable energy sources that are right here,” Clinton said.
The New York senator also addressed the state’s largest minority, saying she would improve health care for American Indians and appoint them to key positions in government.
The state Democratic Party expected to raise at least $200,000 from the annual Mansfield-Metcalf dinner thanks to the big-name speakers. The party hopes to use the excitement to organize for the fall elections — while Republicans believe the high-profile visits could negatively affect state Democrats who have worked to carve independence on key issues such as gun control.
Both campaigns ramped up their Montana campaigns this week. Former President Bill Clinton campaigned in four cities on Tuesday, and Obama opened up two offices. Hillary Clinton was scheduled to extend her stay into Sunday, holding a morning fundraiser in Missoula followed by a town hall meeting.
Obama arrived early Saturday, staging a morning rally in Missoula that packed more than 7,500 inside the sports arena at the University of Montana.
Obama told the crowd there that he wants to cap greenhouse gases and invest in solar, wind, clean-coal and other new energy sources.
“Look at this incredible landscape around here. We have to pass that on,” Obama said, drawing cheers.
Former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams said he was glad to see environmental issues take the forefront in the national discussion during the candidates’ visits to Montana.
“This is where environmental issues are understood because we live, work and play on the land,” he said. “It is more important for these issues that they come here and see us, than it is for us to see them.”
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