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Obama campaigns in N.H., apologizes to military families

Mike Dorning
Chicago Tribune

NASHUA, N.H. - Bringing his opening campaign swing to the site of the influential first-in-the-nation presidential primary, Sen. Barack Obama on Monday sharpened distinctions with rival Democrats on the Iraq war even as he offered an apology to military families who might have been offended by a comment he made a day earlier in Iowa.

A local New Hampshire reporter asked Obama, D-Ill., if military families deserved an apology for a comment the senator made during a speech at Iowa State University on Sunday criticizing the war in Iraq as a conflict that had "wasted" more than 3,000 American soldiers' lives.

Obama had backtracked from the comment immediately after the speech, telling a reporter for the Des Moines Register that the remark was "a slip of the tongue" and that soldiers' "sacrifices are never wasted."

Speaking to a group of reporters in the kitchen of a Nashua, N.H., home after a gathering for Democratic party activists, Obama said he had misspoken in Iowa, adding that his opposition to the war was grounded in a desire for soldiers to return home safely to their families.

"I would absolutely apologize if any of them felt that in some ways it had diminished the enormous courage and sacrifice that they'd shown," Obama responded.

In a 10-hour stopover that was only his second visit ever to New Hampshire, Obama drew enthusiastic crowds, with thousands of students and local residents filling an auditorium at the University of New Hampshire at Durham for an evening rally.

He spent two hours mingling with lunch-time coffee house customers and pedestrians on a street near the State Capitol in Concord and later stopped at a party in Nashua hosted at a passive-solar heated home owned by Bette Lasky, the Democratic assistant majority leader of the State House of Representatives.

The Illinois senator stressed his calls to begin troop withdrawals from Iraq as he moved through New Hampshire, a state where the war in unpopular and particularly so among the activist Democrats most likely to vote in the presidential primary.

His chief rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., was dogged with questions about the Iraq war as she campaigned in New Hampshire this weekend.

Clinton was repeatedly pressed by local Democratic activists to say whether she now believed she made a mistake in voting for the 2002 Senate resolution authorizing the Iraq war; Clinton declined to do so and instead repeated past statements that she would not have voted for the resolution had she known what she does now.

Both Clinton and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards were members of the Senate in 2002 and voted in favor of the war authorization. Edwards has said his vote was a mistake and has challenged the Senate to use its power over federal spending to end the war.

Obama was not a member of the Senate in 2002 but spoke out publicly against the war resolution.

Obama, who has recently been focusing attention on that difference in their records by regularly noting in campaign speeches that the war should "never have been authorized," suggested in answering a reporter's question that his rivals and other senators who voted yes are partly responsible for the situation in Iraq.

"I think all the decisions we make in Washington have consequences. So obviously if the Senate had voted down the authorization, we wouldn't be in the situation that we're in now," he said.

Obama also underscored his differences with Clinton's more cautious approach on Iraq. He contrasted as "pretty substantial" the difference between a Senate bill he recently authorized to pull combat troops out of Iraq by March 2008 and a bill that Clinton has introduced to cap troop strength in Iraq at the level in January.

But Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson noted that she had joined Obama in favoring a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops in a 2005 Senate vote.

Speaking at the University of New Hampshire, Obama also questioned the Bush administration's motive in releasing evidence this month that Iranian-built weapons may have been used in Iraq against U.S. forces.

He said much of the evidence was months old and questioned the timing of the release.

Obama campaigned in a blue blazer and open-collar white shirt in a town-hall style meeting at a field house at the university. He drew loud cheers from the crowd, several of whom said they were impressed by his manner.

"He's not stiff. He's not stuffy," said Eric Diamond, 25, a high school teacher from Concord, N.H., who came to see Obama. "He's come up from the grassroots, from the ground up in Chicago. That I admire a lot, anyone who's done hands-on community organizing."

"He's a fresh face. He's not been in the political machine long enough to be jaded," said Stephanie Ashbaugh, 44, a family practitioner from Hollis, N.H.

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