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Obama 'off the cuff'

FARGO -- In a state that hasn't voted a Democrat for president for 44 years, Sen. Barack Obama 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 voted a Democrat for president for 44 years, Sen. Barack Obama 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 4-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 one of the tickets for Thursday's event for him, his wife and Brianna.

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

Ralph Maxwell, a former U.S. attorney and state judge in Fargo, said he yearns for the change Obama promises. He's been a Democrat since about the time he graduated from UND's law school after the war once the old Non-Partisan League merged into the party, he said.

The 88-year-old Devils Lake native fit easily Friday into the very uniform he wore as a sergeant in an anti-aircraft unit in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

Maxwell joined about 200 veterans present for the event, the day before Independence Day. Organizers said it was meant to honor veterans.

"We've had eight years of disaster, mendacity and fiscal irresponsibility," Maxwell 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 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 into his major issues. One of the two dozen or more national reporters and photographers who follow the Obama campaign stop to stop said the Illinois senator was much more "off the cuff" Friday 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 Bears' prospects and player needs, and gibed the many Minnesota Viking fans present, saying "you all need to get re-educated."

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

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

She normally leans Republican, Beth said, canceling her husband's vote. "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.

Dictating terms

Phil Harmeson, a UND official and longtime political analyst in North Dakota, said he was struck by the significance of the Obama phenomenon evident at Thursday's event, as well as at the state Democratic convention in Grand Forks in April.

Obama and his then-rival Sen. Hillary Clinton spoke to a crowd of 20,000 in the Alerus Center.

"He's making a stop in Fargo, North Dakota, in July when most times, the Democrats write off the state early," Harmeson said. It means Obama is dictating the terms of the national campaign, he said, which would force McCain to stump here, a state he ordinarily could have counted on without a visit.

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No Democratic presidential candidate has won North Dakota since Lyndon Johnson's win in 1964.

But, for state politics, Obama's visit is even more significant, Harmeson said. The good vibrations that Obama's charm and gospel of change generate could be enough to swing, say, three state senate races to the Democrats, giving them control of at least one house in a legislature long 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 Obamanites.

Playing perfectly to the day and to his audience, Obama promised to spend far more money on veterans if 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 hourlong town hall meeting, Obama worked a long line 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. Kennedy campaigned in Fargo in 1959 when Vacha was 12 and lived a few blocks from the airport at what now is Yunker Farm.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com .

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