Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois works the crowd Saturday during a town hall meeting at Kids Unlimited in Medford. - Jim Craven

Obama voices faith in the people

Medford eighth-grader Elena Roberts' voice quivered only slightly when she was handed the microphone during a packed town hall meeting with Barack Obama Saturday morning.

"I was wondering what your feelings were on stem cell research," the 14-year-old asked the Democratic presidential candidate.

She was one of half a dozen people randomly selected from a crowd of about 2,000 to ask Obama a question following his nearly 50-minute address at Kids Unlimited, a popular youth activities center. The Medford stop was Obama's last in a sweep of the state that included Friday rallies in Portland, Salem and Eugene.

"I am a strong supporter of stem cell research," he responded, adding a bill that's been passed by Congress twice but vetoed by President Bush would allow the use of embryos that were set to be discarded.

"They have been produced through the consequence of..." He paused for a moment, searching for the right word.

"I'm sorry, what was that?" he asked when someone in the crowd shouted a word to help.

"Yes, conceive — that was the word I was looking for," he said, prompting applause and laughter from the crowd. "It's been a long week," he added, creating more laughter.

Obama, who appeared a little tired but relaxed before the supportive crowd, went on to say he supports the research because of the promise it holds to fight deadly diseases.

"The notion we would not want to relieve suffering doesn't make sense," he said.

Obama arrived at Kids Unlimited at about 9:30 a.m. after spending the night at the SpringHill Suites by Marriott in south Medford and working out at Oz Fitness Center, accompanied by a troop of Secret Service agents.

Obama was introduced by Oregon native Tony McPeak, a retired U.S. Air Force general and a 1954 graduate of Grants Pass High School. In his remarks, McPeak took former President Bill Clinton to task for suggesting Friday in North Carolina that Obama did not love his country.

"Both Barack Obama and John McCain are great patriots who love this country and are devoted to it," McPeak said. "So is Hillary Clinton. Any suggestion to the contrary is flat wrong.

"As one who for 37 years proudly wore the uniform of our country, I'm saddened to see a president employ these kinds of tactics," he added. "He of all people should know better. He was the target of that kind of tactic when he first ran 16 years ago. They had no place then and they have no place now."

Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton's campaign, said Saturday that McPeak's comments were a "deliberately pathetic misreading of what the president said."

Obama talked about his 31/2 years working as a community organizer in South Chicago after steel plants closed, helping bring economic development to the region.

"It was the best education I ever had because it taught me that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they are given a chance," he said. "It taught me that change doesn't happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up in America."

Noting there are 47 million people in the nation without health insurance, Obama touted his plan to help lower health insurance costs to those already insured while providing affordable coverage for those currently uninsured.

"And we will emphasize prevention so that we have a health care system instead of a disease care system," he said.

After stating he would withdraw American troops by the end of 2009, Obama said he would spend the money now being spent in Iraq on the nation's roads and bridges and other public structures. Obama voted against going into Iraq in 2003 while Sens. Clinton and McCain supported it.

Ashland resident Arlene Rogers told Obama she was concerned about the nation's ailing economy. "I want to know what your specific ideas would be to get the country back on its feet," she said.

Obama called for shoring up the housing market immediately by providing a $10 billion home foreclosure prevention fund. For the long term, he would roll back Bush tax cuts for the top 1 percent of income earners as well as close corporate tax loopholes.

"And I want to give a middle-class tax cut to people who are making $75,000 or less a year," he said, noting they would get a payroll tax offset of about $1,000 a year per family.

One young man, identifying himself as a veteran, wanted to know what Obama would do for veterans coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Obama replied that he would start by having all appropriate veterans screened for post-traumatic stress disorder and brain trauma.

"I want people to get mental health services immediately," he said. "Veterans are seven times more likely to become homeless than non-veterans. If they don't get attention early, they can start self-medicating and end up on the streets."

He would also increase the GI bill and support for military families.

"The bottom line is this: We have to serve our veterans as well as they served us," he said.

In response to a question by Ashland resident and forest ecologist Dominic DellaSala on how the administration would stop the cutting of old-growth forests, Obama said as president he would reverse the present administration's undoing of past gains to protect the environment.

Climate change would be a top priority in his administration, Obama said, noting increasing "green energy" would both reduce pollution while producing jobs.

"In terms of the issue more specific to Oregon, the county timber payments for example, the key is to having an Environmental Protection Agency that believes in protecting the environment," he said. "It means having an Interior Department that is not just a shill for extraction industries.

"But the federal government must listen to local communities," he said. "There are some legitimate interests that are in conflict. There is a tension between the people who want to protect the environment and the legitimate concern of people who are working in these industries."

The goal should be sustainability of both the industries and the environment, he said.

After his speech, Obama met with about 30 youths involved with Kids Unlimited and posed for pictures.

"He shook every one of their hands," said Executive Director Tom Cole.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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