(Candidate Barack Obama shakes hands with a supporter. Photo by Celeste Van Kirk)
By Michael Jones
O-R Staff Writer
April 16, 2008
Barack Obama calmly stood behind a blue curtain, his arms crossed and body swaying back and forth, moments before being introduced to the crowd of about 300 people.
It is a routine the Illinois senator has been through hundreds of times on the campaign trail, but just beyond the curtain, anticipation swelled as supporters wearing campaign garb eagerly awaited the Democratic presidential hopeful's entrance.
"It's time to take our country back," Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner said, "and that's why I believe we are here today to support Barack Obama."
With that introduction, Obama stepped through the curtain and the crowd inside the Rossin Student Center ballroom on Washington & Jefferson College's campus rose to its feet and gave him a raucous reception. It took him several minutes to make his way to the podium as he shook hands with dozens of military veterans seated underneath an American flag draped overhead.
Obama's visit marks the first time one of the three remaining presidential contenders has come to Washington County. His chief rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, will travel to the Mon Valley Saturday.
Philip Fiumara Jr., district commander for the Department of American Veterans, gave Obama an American flag lapel pin to wear before he addressed the crowd. Obama quickly pinned it to his coat and personally thanked him following the event.
"I heard a lot of people say he won't wear a flag pin," Fiumara said. "Well, if he's helping veterans, he needed a pin."
Obama spoke for a mere 15 minutes, highlighting his grandfather's service during World War II and explaining the problems facing many present-day soldiers returning from battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. He then turned the forum over to the audience and took questions for 45 minutes.
Near the end of the forum, Charles "Tootie" Smith, a disabled Vietnam War veteran living in McDonald, took the microphone and addressed Obama for several minutes, never asking a question.
"This is what America is all about," Smith said. "So, Mr. President, thank you."
He then stood and hugged Obama as the crowd cheered.
Jim Trent, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, is a registered Republican and will not be able to vote in the Democratic primary Tuesday. He has not decided for whom he will vote, but said he wanted to see Obama in person to help him choose in the general election.
"I just wanted to hear the man," Trent said after the event. "I like him."
Trent, of South Strabane, dismissed the controversy over Obama's comments at a private fundraiser last week that small-town voters are sometimes "bitter" and that they "cling to guns or religion ... to explain their frustration."
"Yeah, we do hold to our guns and our religion, but that's something we've done for generations in this area," Trent said. "It's part of our background and who we are. I think they're just using comments like that out of context and some people are upset about it. I wasn't at all."
As Obama left, he shook hands with supporters who crammed into a velvet rope near the stage. Heidi Szuminsky of Waynesburg weaved her way to the front and briefly spoke to the candidate.
"I've been waiting to do that for a long time," she said.
As a member of the Young Democrats in Greene County, Szuminsky has supported Obama since he gave a stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
"I think he's the one candidate who can actually unite our country and truly bring about the change he speaks about," Szuminsky said. "There's just so much I like about him."
Obama heads today to Philadelphia, where he will debate Clinton.
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