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Candidates discuss energy, environment on Earth Day

John McCormick
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama took his campaign to Iowa's largest university campus Sunday to pitch tougher environmental policies and an anti-war message before thousands gathered on Earth Day.

"We know that we've got an energy policy that is the absence of an energy policy," Obama said under a warm spring sun on the University of Iowa's campus. "It's an energy policy that sends $800 million a day to some of the most hostile nations on Earth, that leads us to fund both sides of the war on terrorism."

But Obama, D-Ill., was not alone among leading Democratic candidates in trying to convince potential voters of his environmental conscience in a state that will hold the first presidential voting in January.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., campaigning only about 130 miles to the north at Luther College in Decorah, pushed proposals to increase renewable energy research and establish a goal of getting 20 percent of the nation's electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

And former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who is leading in many polls of likely Iowa caucus participants, encouraged Americans to reduce carbon emissions while campaigning in Waterloo and Ft. Dodge.

Edwards, however, was distracted throughout the weekend by reports that his campaign paid for $400 haircuts, an expense he has said he will repay. The topic landed him on the front page of Saturday's Des Moines Register, while one of that paper's leading columnists severely teased him in Sunday's edition.

Obama, meanwhile, met with several dozen Iowa volunteers who spent the morning planting tree seedlings purchased by his campaign. Although he was scheduled to later fly by chartered jet back to Chicago, his campaign stressed that he arrived in a sport utility vehicle that burns E-85 fuel, a blend that is 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol.

Speaking to a crowd that a university official estimated at 10,000, Obama said he is convinced global warming is a real threat that requires an immediate response.

"The days of debate about whether or not the globe is getting warmer are over," he said. "There are about two holdouts left in the Bush White House. But everybody else across the planet knows that this is an issue that we've got to attend to."

Prior to his speech, Obama told reporters that Americans are ready for tough new environmental measures and have been called to action partly by "An Inconvenient Truth," a film featuring Al Gore.

"Vice President Gore, I think, deserves a lot of credit for this," Obama said. "His film captivated not just the country, but the world. But you're also just seeing mounting evidence of the severity of the problem and the urgency of us needing to take steps."

Reiterating a proposal he made Friday in New Hampshire, Obama called for lower carbon emissions from fuels. His plan echoes an initiative of California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who issued an executive order this year requiring fuels sold in his state to contain less carbon in order to cut emissions.

Obama essentially would impose the California plan on the nation, requiring that fuels sold in the U.S. contain 5 percent less carbon by 2015 and 10 percent less by 2020, something he said would be equivalent to taking 32 million cars off the road.

"That is something we could do right now," he said. "It is well within our capacity."

Obama also called for boosting fuel efficiency standards for cars to an average 43 miles per gallon, saying the nation could then "import zero oil from the Middle East."

Although he has supported increased coal production that would benefit southern Illinois' economy while also potentially increasing global warming, his campaign said he also backs so-called "carbon sequestration" techniques that would capture and store carbon emissions from coal.

Although the environment was his main theme, Obama spent more than 10 minutes talking about his biography, later hammering against the situation in Iraq, a topic that drew some of his strongest applause in an area considered the most liberal in the state.

"There is no military solution in Iraq," he said. "Our young men and women have done their duty. It is time to bring them home."

The trip was Obama's sixth to Iowa since he announced his candidacy in February. The Iowa City event followed one Saturday evening in a Des Moines suburb where he spoke to a group of progressive activists and members of the United Auto Workers.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who endorsed Obama even before former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack left the presidential race, said Obama is doing well in the leadoff caucus state.

"He's drawn by far the biggest crowds of any candidate in either party," Miller said. "Our challenge is to harvest this big potential on caucus night."

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