By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008; A04
COLORADO SPRINGS, July 2 -- Continuing to press the themes of values, faith and patriotism, Sen. Barack Obama exhorted Americans on Wednesday "to step into the strong currents of history" and volunteer for service to their country, pledging to dramatically expand opportunities for those accepting his challenge.
On a campaign swing that included visits to military bases, which he had previously largely steered clear of, the Democratic presidential candidate emphasized his own love of country.
"That's the bet our Founding Fathers were making all of those years -- that our individual destinies could be tied together in the common destiny of democracy, that government depends not just on the consent of the governed but on the service of citizens," he told a small audience filling a gymnasium at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "That's what history calls us to do, because loving your country shouldn't just mean watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. Loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it."
Throughout the week, Obama has been striving to win over voters in Republican areas, defending his patriotism in Independence, Mo., on Monday; pledging to expand federal assistance to religious social service groups in rural Ohio on Tuesday; and preaching service in central Colorado on Wednesday. He will speak about veterans in Fargo, N.D., on Thursday, then will highlight the theme of family on Friday as he celebrates Independence Day in Butte, Mont., with his wife and two daughters.
He emphasized what he called "the enormity of the American accomplishment," touring Peterson Air Force Base here and visiting the ultra-secretive North American Aerospace Defense Command, U.S. Northern Command headquarters and the Air Force Academy. Such stateside military visits have been a rarity for Obama. Since entering the Senate in 2005, he has visited only the National War College and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, along with two bases in Illinois, his home state.
But such installations are critical in the West, especially here. Colorado gave President Bush 52 percent of its vote in 2004, compared with 47 percent for his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), but the vote in El Paso County, the home of Colorado Springs, was a far more lopsided 67 percent to 32 percent.
Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), who won his seat in 2004, said Obama was "exactly right" to campaign here and attempt to at least trim his margin of defeat. "The ideal is to win; however, having been a veteran of three statewide races in six years, I know the reality of places like El Paso County," Salazar said.
Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, a strong supporter of Obama's primary opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), said that after the hard-fought primary season, Obama had no choice but to reintroduce himself to the wider audience of the general-election campaign.
Citing a front-page photo in Wednesday's Des Moines Register of Obama surrounded by small-town Ohio children, Vilsack said the effort appeared to be going well. "People want to know not just what his proposals are or that he gives a good speech," Vilsack said. "They want to know where his heart is."
Obama did not shy from partisan controversy as he spoke here of Sept. 11, 2001, and Americans' readiness to serve after the attacks.
"We were ready to step into the strong current of history and to answer a new call for our country, but the call never came," he said. "Instead of a call to service, we were asked to go shopping."
At $3.5 billion a year, his service plan, laid out last December and expanded on only slightly Wednesday, has been derided by conservatives as an example of big government. He would expand the AmeriCorps program established by President Bill Clinton by 250,000 slots, double the size of the Peace Corps by 2011, expand the Foreign Service, and create an Energy Corps to conduct renewable-energy and environmental-cleanup projects. Veterans would be enlisted to help other veterans find jobs and support, and a Social Investment Fund Network would support the nonprofit sector.
An American Opportunity Tax Credit would offer $4,000 to college students for 100 hours of public service. A planned expansion of the Army and Marines by 92,000 would be fostered with pay raises, more family-friendly policies and an end to recruiting impediments such as "stop-loss" decrees that prevent service members from leaving on schedule.
A component Obama added Wednesday would allow veterans to use expanded education benefits under the newly passed GI Bill to seek training for jobs working with renewable energy.
Obama stressed his own experience working after college as a community organizer for $12,000 a year, as well as the role that his wife, Michelle, has played with AmeriCorps in Chicago.
"Through service, I found a community that embraced me, citizenship that was meaningful, the direction I'd been seeking," he said.
Republicans here savaged Obama in a conference call, raising his past support for gun control and his private fundraiser Wednesday night at the ritzy Broadmoor hotel, which they say is closed to avoid questions about retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark. Last weekend, Clark said Republican Sen. John McCain's war record is not a qualification for the presidency.
Obama has "chosen to have private meetings because he knows the backlash he would experience here because of the actions of his surrogates," said state Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs).
North Dakota, where Obama will be campaigning Thursday, gave Bush 63 percent in 2004. Fargo's Cass County was only slightly closer, with a split of 59 percent to 39 percent. Montana was similarly deep red in 2004, although Silver Bow County, where Obama will be campaigning, is a Democratic labor-union stronghold. Kerry won 57 percent of the vote there.
But Salazar said Obama is wise to take on the values issue. "I think it's a mistake for Democrats to run away from that values-based discussion," he said.
The Obama campaign believes that the candidate has found a way to meld his calls for a more active government with an appeal to military-oriented voters and his own efforts to dispel stubborn notions that he lacks patriotism.
"There is a lesson to be learned from generations who have served: from soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines, suffragists and freedom riders, teachers and doctors, cops and firefighters," he said. "It's the lesson that in America, each of us is free to seek our own dreams, but we must also serve a common purpose, a higher purpose."