Obama event turns into anti-war rally

Christi Parsons and John McCormick
Chicago Tribune

Sen. Barack Obama gestures and responds to a group of
protesters during his campaign event at the University of
Chicago, Sunday, February 11, 2007.
(Pete Souza/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

CHICAGO - A homecoming for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., turned into an anti-war rally Sunday evening, as he returned to his home city following the weekend launch of his candidacy for president to find a crowd of 7,300 troubled over the Iraq war.

Obama had already spent much of the day talking tough about Iraq, critiquing the war positions of other Democratic candidates for president and serving up a sharp retort to a foreign leader who had publicly mocked Obama's own plan for withdrawing troops.

Then a vocal crowd of anti-war protesters quickly made the issue the central focus of Obama's evening rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion, holding up a sign that read "Cut the Funding" during his address and chanting loudly as he tried to speak.

"I'm glad they were there," Obama said later. "They feel a sense of urgency about a war that should have never been authorized and a war that should have never been fought."

But he said he doesn't want to cut funding for the military personnel who are already serving in Iraq, saying that could mean they don't get the equipment they need.

"We need to bring this war to an end," he said, "but we need to do it in a way that makes our troops safe."

The rally was the last public event on Obama's weekend tour, which began with his official announcement that he would seek the presidency and continued with a tour of Iowa through Sunday afternoon.

But the day-long discussion of the war ultimately was overtaken by political reality, as Obama - now under the gun to catch up with the political fundraising of other leading candidates - left the rally to attend a downtown fundraiser hosted for him by Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker.

"I need your money. I need your time. I need your energy," Obama told more than 700 donors gathered at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, where they sampled sandwich meat and fruit, in exchange for checks or credit card payments of up to $2,300.

Throughout the weekend, Obama talked to every crowd he addressed about the need to end the war, a roundly popular assertion at every venue where he spoke.

But in talking with reporters over the noon hour on Sunday, Obama talked pointedly for the first time about Sen. Hillary Clinton's position on the war, by many assessments the New York senator's weakest spot in the primary race.

Obama said that he was "not clear" on how Clinton would end the war, which she says she wishes to do.

He also pointed out that he was against the war from the beginning, and said he thought it was possible at the time to tell that the military action "would not work out well." Both Clinton and Democratic candidate John Edwards voted in 2002 to authorize the war, a position that each is now working to finesse with Democratic voters.

In the same question-and-answer session with reporters, Obama had harsh words for Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who said that Obama's proposal to withdraw combat troops by March of 2008 would "just encourage those who want to completely destabilize and destroy Iraq."

Obama said that Australia had sent only 1,400 troops to join the effort in Iraq, a fraction of the 140,000 American troops now serving there.

"I would suggest that he call up another 20,000 Australians and send them to Iraq," Obama said. "Otherwise, it's just a bunch of empty rhetoric."

At the rally Sunday night, Obama greeted thousands of supporters with his wife, Michelle, at his side, addressing them from a theater-in-the-round-style stage and reiterating the ideas of his announcement speech.

He hadn't yet gotten to his points about the Iraq war when the protesters began to chant "Troops out now!" prompting Obama to stop his talk and try to engage them.

"I hear you," he said. "We'll talk about that in a second. ... You've made your point, so why don't you relax?"

But the protesters continued to chant, and the rest of the crowd began to drown them out with deafening chants of "O-ba-ma!" Someone grabbed the sign from the protesters' hands - the protesters said later that security officers did so - and they left.

"They kicked us out," said Ryan Donnelly, a UIC student who participated in the protest with about 20 other students.

Obama's message was popular with the crowd. Heather Lewis, 20, a DePaul psychology student, had used black, red and blue markers to create an Obama logo on her white tank top.

Sharon Olsen, a postal carrier from Warrenville, declared, "I believe he is the future of politics for the United States. He has the ability to work with both sides of the aisle, and we need a change."

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., compared Obama to Harold Washington, who was elected Chicago's first black mayor in 1983. "He brought excitement to the air, just like Obama," he said.

Others said they liked Obama even if they aren't yet completely won over.

"I think he handled the war piece very well," said Dwight McKee, a trade association director from Chicago. "I'm sold on the need for Obama right now more than I'm sold on Obama."

The evening fundraiser attracted top Illinois Democrats, including state Comptroller Dan Hynes and Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Actor Dennis Hopper also attended.

David Keyt, a health and benefits consultant from Chicago, attended the fundraiser and wrote a check for $1,000 to cover attendance for himself and his wife. He said he was originally backing Clinton but is warming to Obama.

"He represents something new, fresh and not tied to the history of Washington," he said as he arrived for the evening event at the Hyatt. "But we are still learning about him and reading his books."

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