HARRISBURG, PA.—Presidential candidate Barack Obama's "Road to Change" bus tour rolled through this city of 47,000 on Sunday evening, drawing 1,500 who had stood in line on a cold Saturday morning for hours to get free tickets. The event followed a stop in State College, Pa., earlier in the day and drew a diverse crowd that often rose to its feet and chanted Obama's name. Both candidates have been crisscrossing the state in advance of the April 22 primary, and Clinton had an event scheduled in Harrisburg for Monday.
Sen. Bob Casey Jr., who announced his endorsement of Obama on Friday, introduced the candidate to supporters at the city's Forum Auditorium. The town hall-style meeting consisted largely of Obama answering questions from the crowd, from attendees young and old, and addressing such issues as healthcare, the war, wage discrimination, energy policy, mental health parity, and substance abuse.
Obama often bantered and joked with the audience and maintained a casual style that seemed to impress many attendees. He thanked the audience for its support during a long presidential race. "There have been babies that have been born and are now walking and talking" since he first announced his candidacy 15 months ago, Obama said jokingly. "I am running because of what Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] called the fierce urgency of now," he added, dismissing the concerns of those who suggested he not run for president now because he is young enough to wait.
But what the crowd seemed to appreciate most were answers perceived as frank and straightforward that didn't so much tell people what they wanted to hear as they did urge collaboration and participation from ordinary citizens in addressing issues such as wage discrimination and education.
His answer to a question about how to better educate children drew cheers. In addition to any efforts the government and school systems might make, "Parents have to take some responsibility," he said. "And if your child's misbehaving in school, don't cuss out the teacher.... Education is not some passive thing where you can just pour it in your ear and you're educated."
That type of response—encouraging people to take some responsibility but showing his concern for any number of issues—were what many attendees said they found most impressive. "I thought he was excellent," said 48-year-old Brenda Alton, a resident of Steelton, Pa., and pastor of a Harrisburg church. "He was real with us." One of the things Alton liked best was that Obama acknowledged that fixing some issues would take time, "but he also challenged us as people."
Obama took questions from the crowd "boy, girl, boy, girl"—to be fair, he said. Among the questions was one from Harrisburg resident Reginald Guy, 59, whose concern was a local issue. He wanted to know what Obama would do to help address the federal bureaucracy that frustrates many and has become an issue in Harrisburg during debate over where to build a new federal courthouse. Many local residents, including Guy, favor an inner-city site that they hope would spur economic development of that area. Obama admitted he wasn't familiar with the debate over the location but said he'd work as president to see that the federal government focuses less on bureaucracy and more on working for ordinary people.
Was Guy satisfied with Obama's response? "Senator Obama gave a very insightful answer to the need to make the federal bureaucracy more accessible to the people," Guy said. "With him as president of the U.S., his response tonight suggested that Pennsylvania—and in particular, Harrisburg—would have a friend in the White House. We need a president that will stand for economic development for all people and not just for the favored few."
"I believe there's integrity within him," said Alton, who stood in line for an hour to get tickets and made the decision to vote for Obama in the past few months. "I prefer integrity over nine years of experience, and I know he will surround himself with great people."
Attendees Melissa Hoffman-Long, 29, and husband Nick Hoffman, 28, agreed, calling the meeting "fantastic." They came with their 5-month-old daughter, Maggie. Unable to get tickets Saturday, they showed up at the event on Sunday and waited for two hours to get in via an overflow line.
After the event, some said they were even more sure now that Obama would get their votes than when they walked in.
"I think it was probably the best political speech I've ever attended," said 64-year-old Beverly Kelchner, a resident of Carlisle, Pa., who counts healthcare and the war in Iraq among the issues driving her support of Obama.