BUTTE — At events more likely to host a candidate for county sheriff than president, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama spent a sunny Fourth of July here Friday, driving home his message that if he can win in Montana this fall, he can win almost anywhere.
“If you stand with me and walk with me and vote just four months from now, we will have won Montana and we will have won everywhere else,” he told a cheering crowd at an outdoor picnic on the Montana Tech campus in Butte. “We are going to change this country and we are going to change the world.”
Obama, joined by his wife Michelle, his two daughters and his sister and brother-in-law, spent the day in Butte, taking in the Mining City’s annual Fourth of July parade and lunching at the picnic, where several hundred people gathered to hear him speak and chow down on hot dogs and hamburgers served by organized labor volunteers.
Obama appeared in Butte just one day after Rasmussen Reports, a national polling firm, released results of a telephone poll showing Obama leading Republican presidential candidate John McCain by 48 percent to 43 percent.
His two-night stay in Montana culminated a brief trip through states that usually vote Republican in presidential elections, as Obama attempts to show he can challenge McCain in the November election on new fronts.
“I think we’ve got a great chance in Montana,” he said in an interview with Montana reporters after his speech. “People here are struggling, just like they’re struggling all over the country.
“We believe we can win a whole lot of states where Democrats haven’t competed before.”
Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois, never mentioned McCain by name or inference on Friday, instead choosing to outline his own vision for America’s future: End the war in Iraq, pass health-care reform that can offer coverage for all, fashion a new energy policy
that emphasizes alternative energy.
“There are challenges all across Montana, and this country,” he said. “And the question is, are we going to seize this moment? Are we going to declare our independence today? Are we going to declare our independence from special interests (that are blocking energy and health-care reforms)?
“That’s the kind of independence we need to declare for ourselves today.”
While the day certainly had its political bent, it often seemed more like a community fair, as Obama joined several thousand people to watch the Fourth of July parade on Butte’s Harrison Avenue and then attended the picnic, where he spoke from the top of a table.
The modest crowd dressed mostly in T-shirts and shorts pressed within a few feet of Obama, while his family sat nearby. At one point, the crowd broke into a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” serenading Obama’s daughter, Malia, who turned 10 on Friday.
“I’m trying to think if there’s a better place in America to celebrate the Fourth of July,” said Obama, as he motioned at the blue sky and snow-capped peaks in the distance.
Some in the crowd drove from elsewhere in Montana — or further — to take in the parade and see Obama.
Lynn Rash and her husband Don, from Centralia, Wash., were in Missoula visiting their son this week, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Obama. They drove to Butte Friday morning and were standing behind a divider near the beginning of the parade, waiting for Obama to appear.
“I think it’s time for a change,” Rash said. “I was kind of thinking about Hillary, but (Obama) just came to the forefront.”
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Chuck England, whose daughter is in the Army in Iraq, drove over from Missoula with his wife, Theresa and their 15-year-old granddaughter, Mary, hoping to get a picture taken with Obama so they could send it to Mary’s mother in Iraq.
“We’re voting for Obama for the main reason that he’s going to bring our troops home,” England said. “Amen to that.”
Obama and his family flew into Butte Thursday night and arrived at the parade’s beginning promptly at 10 a.m., where he made brief remarks and shook some hands before sitting down in the grandstands for more than an hour, watching the floats, vehicles and drill teams march by.
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also attended and walked the parade, along with a few other Democratic office-seekers in one of Montana’s most heavily Democratic towns.
Republicans had a truck in the parade, trailed by a handful of people, including Public Service Commission candidate Alan Olson. The crowd greeted the truck with pointed yet friendly chants of “Oh-Bam-Ah!”
Before Obama spoke at the picnic, Schweitzer gave a brief interview to ABC News, saying Obama can win in Montana, with his message of standing up for working families rather than policies that favor corporations and the wealthy.
And, Obama also has a vibrant campaign in Montana, Schweitzer noted — while McCain hasn’t even shown his face here.
“(Obama) is going to win in Montana,” Schweitzer said. “He’s going to win in Montana because he’s already been in Montana more times than any other Democratic presidential candidate in the last 50 years.”
Obama’s appearance Friday was his fourth campaign visit to Montana in the last three months. He appeared in Butte with Democratic competitor Hillary Clinton on April 5 and also made later appearances in Bozeman and Great Falls.
Speaking to reporters, Schweitzer suggested it may be Obama’s last appearance in Montana during the campaign: “How many more times do you come to (a state) for three electoral votes?”
McCain has not visited Montana during the presidential campaign.
Clad in a rolled-up shirt and brown slacks, Obama told the picnic crowd that he ran for president now rather than later because of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.”
The country is at a crossroads and people need to make a choice “if we are going to deliver (on) the American dream to the next generation,” he said.
Obama called on the crowd to help him help the country “declare independence” from the forces that are standing in the way of reform, and from a foreign policy that has “diminished our standing all around the world.”
America is a “shining beacon” that all the world looks toward for its independence and freedom, he said, and it’s time to come together to reinforce that ideal.
With that, Obama ended his brief speech and declared: “Now, I’m going to go and have a hot dog.”