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Matt Rourke, Associated Press
Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama leaves the First Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, Wis., after attending a service Sunday.

Many Utah delegates to the Democratic National Convention personally know Barack Obama — and wish other Utahns knew him better and hope the convention that begins today will help them do that.

For example, University of Utah law professor Erika George, an alternate Utah delegate, remembers when she was a somewhat insecure college student on the south side of Chicago.

She met Obama — before he was even a U.S. senator — and mentioned in passing that she was considering law school.

"He told me, 'You can do it.' Each time I saw him, he encouraged me to apply to his alma mater, Harvard Law School. I was far from confident but applied anyway. And he was right. I did it," she said.

And because of his demonstrated belief in young people to achieve their highest potential, George said, "I have devoted much of my legal career since my graduation from Harvard to promote social justice and equality through my law practice and teaching."

Delegate Kristi Cumming said she had not met Obama until she hosted a fundraiser for him at her home in Park City last year.

"My sense of him from television was exactly how he appeared to me in person: approachable. He is a person you could envision conversing with on the sidelines of your kids' soccer game or negotiating with world leaders. He is humble, sincere and capable," she said.

Cumming added, "My husband and I were quite surprised when one week later, the phone rang and it was Sen. Obama calling to thank us for hosting him in our home. He shared with us again how beautiful he thought Utah was and how lucky we were to live here."

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland, who also is chairman of Utah's delegation to the convention, said when he met Obama a year ago he found that "this is a guy that when you are in the room with him, his leadership abilities are very obvious."

He said Obama's care for his wife Michelle and two young daughters Malia and Sasha showed "the values that Utahns are looking for."

Even brief handshakes or meetings left deep impressions on several Utah delegates.

Brian Spittler, a delegate who is a Brigham Young University student, met Obama when he was helping his campaign in Elko, Nev.

"So often, we create these superhuman images for those we see in national office and on the TV, only to be very disappointed when you meet them face to face," he said. "This was the complete opposite of the truth with Barack Obama. He was so kind and cordial and very appreciative of the hard work that all the volunteers were putting in."

Spittler added, "He was was very warm and very easy to feel at ease with. He still carried a distinct presence that you couldn't help but respect."

Delegate Millicent Shaw Lewis also met Obama in Elko where she had been campaigning for him. "I was thrilled that Sen. Obama walked right up to me and complimented me on my work. I took that opportunity to give him one of the political novelties that I sell on my Web site," she said. "He laughed and thanked me," and took time to have photos taken with the group.

Delegate Julie Day said she met Obama when her family went to Iowa to help with the caucuses there. "He is direct, down to earth and friendly," she said.

Delegate Theodore Cowan Jr. said even though he had only a brief handshake with Obama, "I know he is genuine."

Some who have not met him personally said they feel like they know him through his writings and speeches — and hope other Utahns would do the same with an open mind.

"I have never met him but have read 'Audacity of Hope,'" Obama's book, said delegate Kurt Bestor, a jazz composer and performer.

"I wish that the average Utahn would explore beyond the vitriol they hear from hate-radio hosts. It's so easy to turn one's brain off and believe all that is propagated by Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and others. Read a little deeper and you will see a very caring, motivated and capable leader," he said.


E-mail: lee@desnews.com; bbjr@desnews.com