CHARLESTON, W.Va. Wearing a flag lapel pin, Sen. Barack Obama emphasized his patriotism and support for a strong and humane military Monday, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton implored West Virginians to sustain her hopes of somehow denying him the Democratic presidential nomination.
Obama expects Clinton to win today's primary in West Virginia, which has large numbers of working-class whites a group that usually backs the former first lady as well as a strong military tradition. He used his visit to Charleston to combat critics' claims that he is not particularly patriotic or ready to be commander-in-chief, in part because he never served in the military, usually does not wear a flag pin, and opposed the Iraq war from the start.
Obama broke from his usual practice by wearing the flag pin and reading his speech instead of talking without notes. He told several thousand people at the Charleston Civic Center that patriotism means more than saluting flags and holding parades. He criticized Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain for opposing a Democratic bill to expand education benefits for veterans.
"At a time when we're facing the largest homecoming since the Second World War," Obama said of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, "the true test of our patriotism is whether we will serve our returning heroes as well as they've served us."
Pointing to the Bush administration, he said, "we know that over the last eight years we've already fallen short of meeting this test." He cited once shabby conditions at such facilities as Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and long waits and bureaucratic obstacles facing many who seek care from the Veterans Administration.
"When our troops go into battle, they serve no faction," Obama said. "They serve no party. They represent no race or region. They are simply Americans."
He proposed expanded veterans' benefits for health care, education, housing and psychiatric treatment. He said McCain opposes a Democratic-crafted bill in Congress to expand education benefits "because he thinks it's too generous."
McCain's campaign said the Arizona senator backs a Republican alternative that is better because it enhances benefits for those who stay longer in the military, thereby encouraging recruitment and retention of troops.
Clinton hoped for a big margin today in West Virginia that could slow the continuing drift of Democratic superdelegates to Obama's camp. Implying that the party could lose in November if he is the nominee, Clinton told patrons of Tudor's Biscuit World in Charleston: "I keep telling people, no Democrat has won the White House since 1916 without winning West Virginia."
At a campaign stop in Logan, W.Va., Clinton was introduced by state Senate Majority Leader H. Truman Chafin, who talked about Clinton carrying the state 80 percent to 20 percent, or even 90-10.
"You think this crowd's noisy, just wait till we win like 80-20," Chafin said.
In New York, Sen. Chuck Schumer, one of Clinton's major supporters, endorsed the idea of Clinton and Obama running together.
"Hillary and Barack have both run very strong and great races, and I think they'd be a strong ticket together," Schumer told a breakfast.
After the speech, Obama stopped at Schultzie's Billiards hall, where he showed greater skill at pool than he had at bowling last month in Pennsylvania.
As a small crowd oohed and ahhed at his third consecutive good shot, Obama said his skill was "the sign of a misspent youth. I wasn't doing wholesome things like bowling."
Still, Obama lost to Iraqi war veteran Paul Scott, 24, because he accidentally knocked in the eight ball prematurely.
Obama told reporters he will have to consistently fight rumors that he doesn't say the Pledge of Allegiance, among other falsehoods widely spread on the Internet. "This is something that's been systematically fed into the bloodstream," he said. He said he had no idea who is doing it.
Obama's campaign announced Monday that he will visit politically neglected Florida and Michigan, as he pivots to a general election strategy.
It will be his first time in either state since signing a pledge nine months ago not to campaign in them because they violated national party rules with early primaries.
All the Democratic presidential candidates agreed to boycott Michigan and Florida. Clinton won both states, although Obama's name was not on the Michigan ballot, and no delegates were awarded. Restoring the delegates is a major part of Clinton's longshot strategy for the nomination.
Clinton's last best hope is to use strong showings in West Virginia and Kentucky to make the case that Obama is weak among key Democratic constituents.
Obama's campaign announced a five-state tour over the next two weeks that includes stops in remaining primary states South Dakota and Oregon but is dominated by swing states where he hopes to run well against McCain.
Obama leads in delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination. He'll try to rebound from Tuesday's expected loss in West Virginia by campaigning this week in Missouri, a state that President Bush won in 2000 and 2004.
On Wednesday, he planned two stops in Michigan the swing Macomb County and the GOP stronghold of Grand Rapids. He plans to spend three days starting May 21 in Florida, with stops in Tampa, Orlando, Palm Beach County and Miami. The area is a popular stop for political fundraising, but the Obama campaign says the candidate will mostly be appealing for votes.
"Our schedule reflects the fact that we are still fighting for votes and delegates in the remaining contests but also that we are going to places that are going to be competitive in the fall," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.