PARK CITY Hundreds of Utahns turned out Sunday at a hastily organized rally to cheer Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's call for change, including an end to U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq.
The Illinois senator originally planned only to attend a private fund-raiser at the home of a Park City supporter during the few hours he spent in Utah between campaign events in Atlanta and Elko, Nev.
But that would have made him the only contender for the White House in 2008 so far to have come to the state without making any contact with Utahns, either directly or through the media.
So his campaign, which had already intended to have the senator stop briefly en route to the fund-raiser to deliver a brief pep talk to a handful of members of Utahns for Obama, quickly put together a rally outside the Park City Visitors Center.
Obama told the Deseret Morning News afterwards that his reception in the state was wonderful and that the turnout at what he called a "sort of spontaneous" rally made it worth stopping.
"This is part of what gives you energy in a campaign, seeing all these folks who are so eager for change. You know, it reminds you why you do what you do," the senator said as he shook hands and signed autographs.
He was less enthusiastic about his chances as a Democrat of winning in heavily Republican Utah. "Well, certainly I'll do everything I can to win as many votes as possible in every state of the union," Obama said. "And I think you can't win unless you show up."
With only limited notice, the senator managed to attract a crowd estimated at about 500 that included children and even a few dogs at the visitors center's parking lot just off State Route 224 near Kimball Junction.
Jaime Sisk, who lives nearby, said she found out about the event after her husband noticed the rally. Sisk described Obama as charismatic but said she'd yet to make up her mind. "It certainly helps," though, she said, to be able to hear a candidate in person.
Her daughter, Blair, 11, shook Obama's hand. "I was just kind of excited 'cause I think since I'm a kid, meeting people who are running for president will give me ideas for what I'm supposed to expect when I'm older and voting," she said, adding Obama had good ideas.
In what turned into the first public rally held in Utah by a presidential candidate this election, Obama spoke for nearly a half-hour about his views on a number of issues, including health care, education, the environment and, of course, the war in Iraq.
Dressed in dark suit pants and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and no necktie, he repeatedly drew cheers, especially when he reminded the crowd that he had always opposed the war and would end it quickly.
Obama told them this was the first time he'd seen anything of Utah other than the interior of the Salt Lake City International Airport and praised the setting as spectacular. "You guys have this all the time, don't you. It's unbelievable," the senator said.
His campaign is drawing crowds nationwide, he said, "because the country is ready for change. ... It's understandable why people want something new because let's face it, the last six years haven't gone so well."
The war, Obama said, is one "that should have never been authorized, that should have never been waged." He said it is time to bring the U.S. troops home and force the Iraqis to come together.
"There's not going to be a military solution to the problems in Iraq," the senator said. "The best way to trigger responsible behavior from them is by sending a signal we are not going to be there permanently. We are going to start bringing our troops home."
Faith was mentioned several times in the state that is headquarters to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Americans must look out for one another, Obama said, an "idea that has to express itself not just through our religious bodies, not just through our families, it's got to express itself through our government."
Obama seemed relaxed in front of the crowd. When a woman shouted that someone had fainted, Obama responded, calling for assistance and asking if the person was all right. "OK? Just give them a little room," he said, joking it was "a sign that I might be speaking too long."
He is the seventh presidential candidate to visit Utah this year. Three fellow Democrats have come former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd.
And the top three GOP contenders have been here already: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Romney has raised the most cash of any candidate from Utahns, about $4.8 million.
Obama attracted 450 people to his Park City fund-raiser. Some paid as much as $2,300 to have their photograph taken with the candidate. The minimum contribution was $500 except for select volunteers, public officials and a few Olympic athletes. The event was expected to raise around $250,000.Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland said the donors couldn't get enough of Obama. "It took a good half-hour just getting him 50 yards from the backyard podium to the living room to meet with public officials," he said. "Usually this is a group that's not star-struck."