BY MIKE FAHER
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama brought his message of change to Johnstown on Saturday, telling an enthusiastic crowd of about 1,200 that he is the right person to transform Washington.
Obama, locked in a fierce political battle with fellow U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, covered a wide range of topics at a “town hall meeting” at Greater Johnstown High School’s gym.
But he repeatedly returned to what has been the central theme of his campaign: The federal government is broken, and he can fix it.
“We’ve got to send a message to Washington that says, ‘enough is enough,’ ” Obama said.
The Illinois senator, just 46 years old, said he is running for president because of “the fierce urgency of now” – a line from Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
And he declared his independence from “special interests” and lobbyists, saying they are “part of what’s wrong with Washington.”
In what has become an ongoing war of words, however, Clinton spokesman Mark Nevins countered that Obama has collected plenty of cash from lobbyists and political action committees in prior campaigns.
“The Obama rhetoric does not often match the Obama actions,” Nevins said Saturday.
Hillary Clinton has enjoyed a warm reception in Pennsylvania and in Cambria County, where powerful Democratic U.S. Rep. John Murtha is among those endorsing her.
But Obama received several standing ovations as he spoke and answered questions about his plans for the war in Iraq, national security, education, health care, energy independence and the economy.
n On Iraq, Obama – like Clinton – is advocating a withdrawal of U.S. troops. In interviews Saturday, Obama said a “clear time frame for withdrawal” would make the Iraqi government take control and would help resolve ongoing violence.
n His health-care plan would lower premiums for those who have insurance, Obama said.
Those who are not covered would be offered a plan at low cost.
“If you can’t afford it, then we will subsidize it so that you can afford it,” Obama said.
n The presidential hopeful said the “No Child Left Behind” educational law relies too heavily on standardized test results and “forces teachers to teach to the test.”
He advocated a more holistic approach and said schools should not be punished because of their test scores.
n Obama said he would strengthen the military but would be more judicious in its use, citing the importance of diplomacy.
“I also want to make sure that we use our military wisely, and the war in Iraq was unwise,” he said.
n Obama called for development of alternative energy sources and better fuel efficiency.
Before arriving at the school, Obama visited Johnstown Wire Technologies. He was impressed by that business’ participation in a consortium that is transforming methane from landfills into natural gas.
“That’s the kind of creativity that the federal government should be encouraging,” Obama said later.
n The candidate said he wants “trade agreements that are fair.” And he claimed that Clinton, while she was first lady, lobbied for passage of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement.
The Clinton camp vehemently denies that charge.
“It was President (Bill) Clinton’s decision to move forward with NAFTA,” Nevins said. “But within the administration, she was a vocal opponent of NAFTA.”
Obama’s visit to Johnstown followed Bill Clinton’s stop here on March 12. Both campaigns are expected to canvass Pennsylvania until the state’s April 22 primary.
In interviews after Saturday’s event, Obama said he does not believe that the prolonged, often bitter battle for the Democratic nomination will hurt his party.
He pointed to “huge jumps” in new voter registration.
No matter who wins the Democratic nod, Obama said he does not believe the party’s voters will defect in large numbers and vote for U.S. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee.
“I think that the (Democratic) party will be unified around a single nominee,” he said.
Obama leads Clinton in pledged delegates and in the popular vote, but he rejected the notion that his opponent should drop out of the race.
“My attitude is that Senator Clinton can run as long as she wants,” Obama said.
He was flanked throughout the day by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, the Pennsylvania Democrat and party superdelegate who made headlines this week by endorsing Obama.
“He’ll fight for your jobs and your family’s jobs,” Casey told the Johnstown crowd.
While Obama lags in statewide polling, Casey predicted that gap could close.
“The more time on the ground in Pennsylvania, the better he will do,” Casey said.
The Clinton campaign has a much different prediction, even as the Democratic race threatens to extend into June.
“I think (Obama supporters) know that the longer this goes on, the worse it is for them,” Nevins said. “They are losing momentum, and Senator Clinton is gaining momentum.”