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Obama history made in Minnesota

ST. PAUL - Barack Obama rocked a Minnesota crowd Tuesday night, making presidential campaign history.

The first African American to become presidential nominee of a major party offered his vision for a change and began to give details about how he would implement that change. And he wasted no time beginning his general election campaign, attacking Republican John McCain as someone who would continue President Bush's policies.

A crowd of nearly 18,000 cheered Obama's every word, from his praise of vanquished foe Sen. Hillary Clinton to complaints about McCain supporting Wall Street over the average American.

The Illinois senator continued preaching his message of change, hope, inspiration and inclusion on the night he obtained enough Democratic National Convention delegates to become the party's nominee.

"Let us unite in common effort to chart a new course for America," Obama told the Xcel Energy Center crowd during a 27-minute speech.

So many wanted to hear Obama that Xcel could not hold them all. Thousands remained outside to watch the proceeding in the street on a large screen.

The Xcel center will be where McCain officially receives the Republican nomination.

"The other side will come here in September and offer a very different set of policies and positions, and that is a debate I look forward to," Obama said. "It is a debate the American people deserve. But what you don't deserve is another election that's governed by fear, and innuendo, and division. What you won't hear from this campaign or this party is the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon - that sees our opponents not as competitors to challenge, but enemies to demonize."

Earlier Tuesday night, McCain called himself the candidate of change. He told a Kenner, La., audience that Obama offers the wrong type of change.

"The choice is between the right change and the wrong change, between going forward and going backward," the Arizona senator said.

Obama was having none of that.

"It's not change when John McCain decided to stand with George Bush 95 percent of the time, as he did in the Senate last year," Obama said.

With Tuesday's final delegate surge, the 46-year-old U.S. senator from Chicago's South Side sent Clinton to the sidelines after he won enough national convention delegates to win the nomination in Denver in August.

Obama won Tuesday's Montana primary, while Clinton took one in South Dakota.

Inside St. Paul's Xcel center an age and racially diverse group heard Obama's speech. And Clinton was on their minds.

"Sen. Hillary Clinton has made history in this campaign not just because she's a woman who has done what no woman has done before, but because she's a leader who inspires millions of Americans with her strength, her courage and her commitment to the causes that brought us here tonight," Obama said.

Shortly before Obama's speech, Clinton delivered one of her own in which she refused to concede the race and asked Americans to log onto her Web site to tell her what to do next.

About 20 Minnesota Clinton supporters, mostly top politicians, were in reserved seats near the Xcel stage and met with Obama late Tuesday.

"It's kind of a bittersweet day for me," said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, one of the most visible Clinton supporters. "I think that at some point we all know that having a unified party is very important."

Other well-known Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party leaders who backed Clinton include former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Sen. Mark Dayton.

Thousands of Obama supporters waited outside the Xcel center for hours. Among them was a Duluth professor.

Opponents like McCain should not take Obama lightly, Bud McClure of Duluth said.

"One thing they have attempted to do is dismiss the inspirational nature of this young man," the University of Minnesota Duluth psychology professor said outside the Xcel center hours before Obama spoke.

Obama's Minnesota fans lined up outside the Xcel center beginning at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday.

First in line were two Hastings teens.

"My generation is plagued with apathy," Bonni McCallson, 18, said from her perch at the front of the line.

She and 19-year-old Kate Rickert said Obama is the person to break that apathy and bring young voters to the polls.

"He gets people inspired," Rickert added.

A few hundred people in line behind Rickert and McCallson, and out of sight from the main door, Eric Aufderhar leaned on a wall reading a book.

Like most at Obama's event, November will be Aufderhar's first opportunity to vote for president.

"I am tired of how the country is going," the 21-year-old University of Minnesota Morris student said before returning to his book.

Obama faithful stood and sat in line on a gray, rainy day, almost 12 hours in the case of McCallson and Rickert. Across the street, national television and cable networks were set up for live reports from downtown St. Paul.

Obama's campaign picked Minnesota for his victory speech for a couple of reasons - the Xcel is where McCain will accept the Republican nomination in early September and the Upper Midwest probably will be a battleground state in this year's presidential election.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, McCain's national co-chairman, summoned reporters to welcome Obama to Minnesota and promote his own candidate.

"These candidates are going to be here a lot," Pawlenty said.

McCain plans a June 19 visit to the Twin Cities, for a fund-raiser and, probably, a town meeting.

The last time Minnesota backed a Republican was President Nixon in 1972. However, Al Gore beat George W. Bush in 2000 by just 2.4 percentage points. John Kerry did a bit better in 2004, edging Bush with a 3.5-point margin.

Obama was born in Hawaii Aug. 4, 1961. His mother was a native Kansan; his father came from Kenya.

After living in New York and Indonesia, he moved to Chicago in 1985. There, he was a community organizer for a church-based group.

Obama earned a law degree and was elected to the Illinois Senate. He moved on to the U.S. Senate in 2004.

Pawlenty said someone with so little experience should not be president. He predicted that many voters who like Clinton's experience will go to McCain.

"It's beyond debate that having experience is a good thing," Pawlenty said.

But the GOP governor did not check Obama supporters at the Xcel center. For them, Obama's inspiration was much more important than any lack of experience.

McClure said he has seen no politician since John F. Kennedy as inspirational as Obama.

McClure's sister, Molly McClure of Harrisburg, Pa., is visiting Minnesota and decided to join her brother at the Tuesday night rally.

She has seen Obama before, and said he has a magnetic personality. "There is something about his nature that is attractive."

The McClures' comments were typical. Most Obama backers said little, if anything, about his policy positions.

For McCallson, sitting in a camping chair for hours awaiting Obama was worth it because she was part of a growing force.

"So many people are coming in armies," she said of the Obama campaign.

Calling herself a lower-middle class Minnesotan, McCallson said she can relate to Obama better than other politicians. "He understands what it is like to be one of us."

Clinton and McCain both are too much party-line politicians, she added, offering nothing new.

Aufderhar, who plans to be a history teacher, said he is optimistic young Americans will vote this year, especially for Obama.

"There is something about him that will bring everyone in," Aufderhar said. "We want to have someone in power to usher us in."

Brianne Skalsky and Thomas Dyer of Little Falls arrived in downtown St. Paul at 9:30 a.m., expecting to hear Obama 12 hours later.

It was the fourth time Skalsky saw Obama.

"In 20 years of my life, he is the first person to inspire me to get off my butt and do something," she said, amid button and T-shirt sellers who circled the Xcel center.

Skalsky said she listened to Obama speech's to the Democratic National Convention four years ago. "I know back in '04 that I wanted him to be my president. ... He embodies the things I want in life."

As to criticism that Obama lacks experience, Skalsky has an answer: "Look where experience has got us. I think it's all about a fresh perspective."

Dyer said he sees another trait in Obama: "I think he is going to unify us all."

State Capitol reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.