By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 12, 2007
CHICAGO, Feb. 11 -- Sen. Barack Obama, circling through Iowa on Sunday before returning here on Day 2 of his presidential launch, challenged his Democratic rivals to lay out specifics for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and declared that the thousands of lives lost so far in the war had been "wasted."
The senator from Illinois later said he regretted his choice of words, telling an interviewer that he meant the troops' sacrifices "have not been honored" by an adequate policy.
But Obama indicated in his earliest steps on the campaign trail that he considers Iraq a central distinction between himself and the rest of the Democratic field.
Obama opposed invading Iraq from the outset and has proposed a deadline of March 31, 2008, for removing troops from the country. He called Sunday for other candidates to explain their exit strategies. In particular, he said, he did not see an explicit blueprint for redeployment from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the early Democratic front-runner.
"I am not clear on how she would proceed at this point to wind down the war in a specific way," he told reporters before a boisterous rally at Iowa State University. "I know that she has stated that she thinks that the war should end by the start of the next president's first term. Beyond that, though, how she wants to accomplish that, I'm not clear on."
In his speech at the university, Obama issued an indictment of how Washington dealt with Iraq:
"We ended up launching a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged -- and to which we now have spent $400 billion and have seen over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted."
He backtracked in an interview with the Des Moines Register, saying: "I was actually upset with myself. Their sacrifices are never wasted; that was sort of a slip of the tongue as I was speaking.
"The sacrifices they have made are unbelievable. What I meant to say was those sacrifices have not been honored by the same attention to strategy, diplomacy and honesty on the part of civilian leadership," he added.
Two days in, Obama's campaign already had the feel of a candidacy in full swing. Thousands of Iowans filled an auditorium in Ames on Sunday morning to catch a glimpse of the now-official candidate.
On Saturday, after announcing his candidacy in the Illinois capital of Springfield, Obama drew sizable and enthusiastic crowds at town-hall meetings in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. Thousands more greeted him upon his arrival back in Chicago, his adopted home town, for a rally on Sunday night.
He took on a relatively serious tone for much of his first days on the campaign trail. He gave lengthy and substantive answers to policy questions from audience members, at times bringing crowds to a hush as he laid out his political philosophy.
His more subdued approach came as a surprise to some in the audiences along the way. "I think a lot of people realize there's been a lot of rock star-ness about him up to now," said Grant Sovern, an immigration lawyer from Madison, Wis., who came to see Obama speak in Cedar Rapids on Saturday. "I think you can see he's trying to bring things down and talk about issues more."
But, Sovern said, it was the rousing part of Obama's speech, toward the end that afternoon, that he expected would carry the candidate forward.
"I hope that the excitement he showed at the end -- that's what a lot of people are looking for," Sovern said.
That spirit came out in force when Obama returned to Chicago. He brought a crowd to its feet at the University of Illinois at Chicago with calls for higher salaries for teachers, help with college tuition, a movement to eradicate special interests' influence over government, and a universal health-care system.
He talked over Iraq war protesters who interrupted his speech with chants for immediate withdrawal of the troops. "We're on the same side," he chided. "Come on, guys."
"I'm proud of the fact that I was against the war from the start," he said minutes later, drawing a rousing response from the audience as he called the war a "tragic mistake."
Clinton has refused to characterize her vote authorizing the war as a mistake, an opening that Obama appears intent on using to his advantage. Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for Clinton, did not directly respond Sunday to Obama's comments about her plans on Iraq but described her as a "forceful critic" of the administration's execution of the war.
"She has supported a phased redeployment of our troops to start bringing them home and has strongly opposed President Bush's escalation of the war by proposing a cap on troops," Wolfson said.
When he was first available to the media, on Sunday, Obama faced a crush of reporters and cameras. He calmly answered questions about the war in Iraq ("We are not more safe as a consequence of it," he began); his hiring of opposition researchers (to answer potential attacks and draw distinctions on the candidates' records, he said); and whether he is still smoking ("No -- I've been chewing Nicorette all day long," he said).
Perhaps the most memorable moment came when he needled the press corps about an emerging story line on his candidacy.
"I know that one of the running threads, one of the narratives that has established itself among the mainstream media, is this notion, 'Well, you know, Obama has pretty good style, he can deliver a pretty good speech, but he seems to prioritize rhetoric over substance,' " Obama said. "Now factually, that's incorrect."
He said his two best-selling books, each of which has sold nearly a million copies, "probably give people more insight into how I think and how I feel about issues facing America than any candidate in the field and probably any candidate who's run for office in recent memory."
He continued: "The problem is not that the information's not out there. The problem is that that's not what you guys have been reporting on. You've been reporting on how I look in a swimsuit." He was referring to a People magazine photograph of him while vacationing in Hawaii several weeks ago.