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Obama touts volunteerism

July 2, 2008 12:48:43 PM PDT
In a bastion of the religious right, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is talking up the importance of volunteerism, part of a patriotism-themed week focused on God, country, service, veterans and freedom - and on cribbing themes from the successful campaigns of President George W. Bush. Wednesday's main message was the need to boost service by all Americans in all spheres - the military, overseas and in neighborhoods.

In the prepared text of Obama's speech, he said the quiet following Friday's Fourth of July celebrations would be a good time to look beyond the "bustle and busyness" of everyday obligations to find a way to contribute.

"I hope you take that moment to think about what you can do to shape the future of this country we love," the Democratic presidential hopeful was to say in a University of Colorado gym. "Loving your country shouldn't just mean watching fireworks on the 4th of July."

Obama talked in almost achingly personal terms about the impact service had on him, as a boy who "spent much of my childhood adrift" and often had little idea "who I was or where I was going." But early in college, he said, values like hard work and empathy resurfaced "after a long hibernation." He eventually found himself working as a community organizer in a devastated South Side Chicago neighborhood, and said he was transformed.

His call is a clear echo of Republican Bush's "love a neighbor like you'd like to be loved yourself" refrain, an enduring and prominent staple of Bush's own runs for the White House as well as his campaigning for others in midterm election years.

But to Obama, the problem is not that Americans are not willing. It's that they have neither been asked nor given enough opportunities. In a clear slap to Bush, he decried that Americans "were asked to go shopping," instead of something larger, in the wake of the 2001 attacks.

"We have lost precious time," he said.

His solution is a major proposed expansion of government national service programs, first unveiled in Iowa in December, that would cost $3.5 billion a year. His campaign said he would fund the spending with some of the savings from ending the war in Iraq and by canceling a new tax break for multinational corporations.

One new piece announced Wednesday would create a new "Green Vet Initiative" offering counseling, job placement and mediation with industry for veterans wanting to enter the rapidly expanding renewable energy field.

Other highlights of the plan include: increasing the all-volunteer military, expanding AmeriCorps, doubling the size of the Peace Corps, expanding YouthBuild, in which low-income young people build affordable housing; expanding service programs involving retired people and anyone over 55, and creating a tax credit making the first $4,000 of college tuition free for students who conduct 100 hours of public service a year.

On a day the Democratic presidential candidate's Republican opponent, John McCain, was in Colombia touting the benefits of free trade deals, Obama also was addressing the United Steel Workers union's annual conference in Las Vegas via satellite and burnishing his military credentials with a planned visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy and Peterson Air Force Base, both based here.

Obama's time here brought him onto the home turf of James Dobson, the popular and influential evangelical leader who founded Focus on the Family and with whom the Democratic candidate has sparred.

Dobson recently said that Obama, in a 2006 speech, was "deliberately distorting" descriptions of Bible passages to suit his policies. Obama shot back that Dobson was "just making stuff up."

As an unexpected entry in the battleground column for this November's election, Colorado is one of the chief places where Democrats see a chance to turn a reliably red state into a blue one. Its biggest city, Denver, was chosen to host the Democratic convention in August where Obama will officially take the nominee crown.

In 2004, Democrat John Kerry made a play for the state but lost it 52 percent to 47 percent to Bush. But Obama chosen it as one of the states where he is airing the opening television ads of his general election race.

And Obama's choice of Colorado Springs - instead of more Democratic friendly towns such as Boulder, Pueblo or Denver - for his visit Wednesday showed the degree to which he is courting Republican religious voters. A religious political action committee supporting Obama has a new pro-Obama radio aid to highlight his faith - and is airing it on Christian radio in Colorado Springs among other places.


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