Obama campaigns in South Carolina

Aaron Gould Sheinin
McClatchy Newspapers

Presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-Ill.) makes a
campaign stop at the Columbia Convention Center in
Columbia, South Carolina, Friday, February 16, 2007.
(Jeff Blake/The State/MCT)

COLUMBIA, S.C. - He fought his way through the crowd, shaking hands and posing for pictures.

When he finally reached the square stage reserved for him, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama took the crowd from jubilant to frenzied.

"How you doing, South Carolina! Look at this! Look at this! Goodness gracious!" he called out.

He was off and running, bringing the diverse crowd of 2,800 in the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center along with him.

The senator from Illinois made his first campaign visit to the state Friday and promised he'd be back often.

And in a 40-minute address from the middle of the room, flanked by two giant American flags and one brilliant blue Palmetto State banner, Obama carried the room through parts of his typical stump speech and moments of inspiration.

Obama, 45, responded to criticism of a black S.C. senator who last week endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., for president while saying Obama can't win the White House because he's black and would drag down the rest of the Democratic ticket if he's nominated.

While he never mentioned the state senator - Robert Ford, D-Charleston - Obama won his biggest cheers of the evening when he responded to the comments.

"Everybody is entitled to their opinion," Obama said, "but I know this: That when folks were saying, `We're going to march for our freedom,' somebody said, `You can't do that.' And somebody said, `Don't sit at the lunch counter, don't share our table.' We can't do that. We can't."

The crowd, which seemed evenly split between black and white, shouted so loudly Obama's amplified voice was lost in the response. By the time he finished the message, the crowd was chanting over and over: "Yes we can! Yes we can!"

It wasn't all designed as inspiration. Much of his address was dedicated to introducing himself to a state that holds a key position in the presidential nomination process by virtue of its first-in-the-South Democratic primary, scheduled for Jan. 29.

Obama last visited the state in 2004, while he was a member of the Illinois state Senate and was a candidate for U.S. Senate. He appeared in Columbia with then-Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum, who was running for the U.S. Senate, too. Obama won his race while Tenenbaum lost.

He returned Friday as part phenomenon, part unknown, but he has established himself out of the gate as one of the front-runners for the party's nomination.

So he introduced himself. He spoke about his wife, Michelle; and daughters, Sasha, 5, and Malia, 8. About his background as the son of white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya. About his education at Harvard University and his experience teaching law at the University of Chicago. About his first run for state Senate, when voters sometimes butchered his name so badly it came out "Alabama" or "Yo mama."

He also delivered dissertations on the state of the country, most often about the need for better health care, better education, more opportunities for rural Americans and the need to end the war in Iraq.

On health care, he promised "by the end of my first term" to implement a system of universal health care, although he has yet to say how that would be funded.

On education, he had pointed words for the condition of schools in South Carolina and across the nation, but he has yet to offer a plan to fix them.

"People take a look at the education system right here in South Carolina," he said. "children that got as much hope, as much promise, as much spark as any children on earth, and on the first day of school they're already behind. They show up to schools that sometimes rats outnumber computers."

He said the federal government's response has been a failure, too.

"No Child Left Behind left the money behind," he said.

On Iraq, Obama repeated his calls for a way to end American involvement. He has introduced legislation that would set a deadline of March 2008 to remove all U.S. combat brigades from the country.

The next president "should wind down this war in Iraq," he said. Of the warring factions in Iraq, Obama said, "if they don't want to get along, then we can't force them militarily to get along."

Finally, Obama called on the crowd to maintain enthusiasm and spirit through the long campaign ahead. He invoked the name of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who once remarked that the "arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

"So, South Carolina, let's get busy. Let's get to work. Let's organize," he said.

"I'm going to be back and want you with us."

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