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Obama courts North Dakota voters

FARGO -- In a state that hasn't gone for a Democrat for president for 44 years, Sen. Barack Obama, relaxed in shirtsleeves, worked the crowd of 1,500 who came from far and near to see what they think is history being made.

FARGO -- In a state that hasn't gone for a Democrat for president for 44 years, Sen. Barack Obama, relaxed in shirtsleeves, worked the crowd of 1,500 who came from far and near to see what they think is history being made.

"I'm more enthusiastic, more excited than in any other election," said Rick Santiago, Fargo, as he bounced his four-month-old daughter, Brianna, and waited to see Obama under the trees of Yunker Farm in north Fargo. The son of migrant workers from San Antonio, Santiago, 41, always voted Republican until George W. Bush said things he didn't like after the 2000 primary season. Obama's message of change and hope rings true for him, Santiago said. "I believe in him, in what he says."

For the first time, Santiago gave money to a campaign, Obama's, and stood in line Tuesday for almost two hours to get tickets for today's event for him, his wife and Brianna.

"The way this country is going, we need to do something. I'm looking toward the future for my daughter and my son, who is 16."

This was an event, the day before Independence Day, to honor veterans, organizers said, and Ralph Maxwell stood ramrod straight, head and shoulders above the 200 veterans present, despite his slight stature.

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Former U.S. attorney and state judge in Fargo, the Devils Lake native and Rolla, N.D. High School and UND alumnus fit easily today into the very uniform he wore as a sergeant in an anti-aircraft machine gun unit in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

"I was stationed in the Aleutian Islands, at Dutch Harbor," he said, and described a three-day battle against the Japanese. "We pushed them out."

He's 88, but appeared able to take on the gaggle of media that clustered around the outside of the crowd.

A Democrat since about the time he graduated from UND's law school after the war once the old Non-Partisan League was wrapped into the party, Maxwell has a youthful wish for the change Obama promises.

"We've had eight years of disaster, mendacity and fiscal irresponsibility," he said before the event. "And an unnecessary . . . war in Iraq that seems to have no end to it."

Obama won loud applause when he promised to end the war in Iraq as soon as possible if he's elected president, saying he would use some of the $10 billion being spent monthly on the war to reduce the budget deficit.

Looking entirely at ease in brown slacks, burgundy tie and white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Obama gave his standard stump speech for about 15 minutes, then spent 40 minutes answering questions from the crowd, using each one to launch in-depth on his major issues. One of the two dozen or more national reporters and photographers who follow the Obama campaign from stop to stop said the Illinois senator was much more "off-the-cuff" today than usual.

Catching sight of a boy wearing a Chicago Bears cap, Obama insisted he get the next question, but first quizzed the boy, who gave his name as Chance, about the Bear's prospects and player needs, and jibed the many Minnesota Viking fans present, saying "you all need to get re-educated."

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Though 1,325 tickets were distributed for today's event, organizers said there's little doubt that more people arrived at the last minute and were allowed in.

Ross and Beth Horner and their son, Alex, 15, drove three hours from Bismarck today to see Obama, after getting a friend to stand in line for tickets Tuesday.

She normally leans Republican, canceling her husband's vote, Beth said. "But I like the change Obama represents. Our country does need a change and I think he's the guy to do it." Asked about Obama's relative lack of experience, she said, "That's why I'm here, to hear more."

Alex said he chose to come, partly because a recent article about Obama in Rolling Stone magazine intrigued him.

Phil Harmeson, vice president of administration at UND and longtime political analyst in North Dakota, said he was struck by both the national and local significance of the Obama phenomenon evident at Thursday's event, as well as at Obama's visit to Grand Forks in April, when Sen. Hillary Clinton also spoke at the state Democratic convention to 20,000 in the Alerus Center.

"The fact he's making a stop in Fargo, North Dakota, in July when most times, the Democrats write off the state early," based on the large-majority Republican presidential candidate wins since Lyndon Johnson won the state in 1964. It means Obama is dictating the terms of the national campaign, forcing McCain to stump in places like North Dakota which ordinarily he could have counted on without a visit, Harmeson said. Now, no doubt, McCain will have to hit North Dakota, too, Harmeson said.

But, for state politics, Obama's visit is even more significant, Harmeson said, because the good vibrations, his remarkable charm and gospel of change generates could be enough to swing, say, three state senate races to the Democrats, giving them control of at least one house in the Legislature that long has been dominated by Republicans, he said.

"So, this could have a dramatic impact on North Dakota politics," Harmeson said, gesturing around the leafy park full of Obamamites.

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Playing perfectly to the day and to his audience, Obama promised to spend far more money on veterans if he's elected, from upping the G.I. Bill's sweep to building new hospitals for veterans, and got in another swipe at the Bush administration as well as McCain for supporting the war in Iraq.

"There are many things that went wrong in the war in Iraq," he said. "But caring for our veterans is one thing we can still get right."

After his hour-long talk/town hall meeting, Obama worked a long circle of eager fans, shaking hands, taking compliments and posing for photos.

Tom Vacha was one.

"I told him, 'when I was 12 years old, I rode my bike out here, to the airport right across the street and I shook John Kennedy's hand,' " Vacha said. "And I told him 'You sure are an inspiration and you remind me a lot of John Kennedy.' And he said thank you."

Vacha, 61, served in Korea during the Vietnam War, and when 12, lived a few blocks from the airport and what now is Yunker Farm, when Kennedy campaigned in Fargo in 1959.

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