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20,000 in Texas cheer Obama's call to end war in Iraq

John Moritz
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

AUSTIN, Texas - Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama received a rock star's reception Friday at his first public appearance in Texas since declaring his candidacy. About 20,000 people crowded into an Austin park to hear him rail against the war in Iraq and take two subtle digs at his chief rival for his party's nomination next year.

Speaking from an open-air stage in a drizzling rain, the junior U.S. senator from Illinois urged the largely adoring crowd to reject the politics of cynicism and to embrace a message of optimism that the U.S. could provide universal health care to its citizens and achieve independence from foreign sources of energy.

"It is time for us to bring this war to an end," said Obama, drawing the largest cheer of his 40-minute speech, delivered without notes. "We cannot stay the course we are on because it's leading to more death and destruction."

Obama, 45, did not miss the opportunity to point out that even though he was not elected to the Senate until 2004, he had publicly stated his opposition to the congressional resolution in 2002 allowing President Bush to use military force to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Democratic frontrunner and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton voted for the resolution, but now says she was misled about the intelligence suggesting that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction.

"Why are we still fighting in a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged?" Obama said.

The Obama and Clinton camps have traded jabs in recent days after Hollywood mogul David Geffen, one-time supporter of President Clinton, criticized the former first lady as "polarizing." A Clinton aide then suggested that Obama return the $1.3 million he had raised at a Hollywood event hosted by Geffen and apologize for not keeping his pledge to run a campaign free of finger-pointing toward fellow Democrats.

Obama's camp quickly returned fire, recalling that Geffen had raised millions for former President Clinton and had been invited to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom in the White House.

During his speech in Austin, Obama urged his supporters to make small donations to his campaign and to encourage their friends to follow suit. "I don't to have to raise all of my money in Hollywood," he said with a smile.

The park alongside Austin's Town Lake where the event was held began filling up with people more than two hours before its scheduled start. Vendors selling soft drinks, Obama T-shirts and campaign buttons gave the event an almost carnival feel as live music was performed by the Cyril Neville Band.

Organizers said about 20,000 people filed past their crowd-counters, which surpassed the 17,000 who attended Obama's announcement rally in Springfield, Ill., on Feb. 2.

"I like the way he spoke about being your brother's keeper," said Sheri Brown, 33, who has settled on Obama as her presidential candidate even though the Texas primary is still a year away.

Cecily Luft, 30, and Shem Daimwood, 23, made a five-hour road trip to Austin for the rally.

"It was totally worth it," Luft said after shaking Obama's hand following his speech. "He's a real person who cares about the things that real people care about and he talks about them in a way that makes them accessible."

"Hillary and all those others are the politics of the past," Daimwood said. "Obama has a plan for the future."

Obama offered few specifics on how he would govern if elected, but instead offered broad themes. The country could afford to provide universal health coverage were it not for the billions being spent in Iraq, he said. Americans could be less reliant on oil from the Middle East if there were more incentives to develop home-grown energy sources, he said.

"What is preventing us from doing it is a lack of political will," he said.

Obama also plugged his best-selling autobiography, "The Audacity of Hope," which he said got its title from a sermon that inspired him to a career in public service. Since the days of the American Revolution, he said, the nation has relied on hope to win independence, free the slaves, win two world wars and overcome segregation.

"Americans at every stage has always had the audacity to have hope," he said.

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