Rally for Barack Obama draws roughly 75,000 to Waterfront Park

Rally for Barack Obama draws roughly 75,000 to Waterfront Park »Play Video
Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks to people at Waterfront Park in Portland, Ore., Sunday, May 18, 2008.

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - In this famously liberal city, under skies that obligingly turned from habitual gray to clear blue, Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama on Sunday drew the largest crowd of his 15-month marathon campaign for the presidency.

Sixty-thousand people packed into a park alongside the banks of the Willamette River to listen to Obama, with another 15,000 left standing outside the gates, according to city fire officials. Hundreds more anchored their motorboats, or floated in kayaks and canoes.

That's far more than the 35,000 people who showed up to hear Obama in Philadelphia last month, at his previous biggest rally.

Even after months on the trail, Obama seemed slightly stunned by the size of the crowd, saying "Wow, wow, wow" as he surveyed the audience.

"We have had a lot of rallies," he said. "This is the most spectacular setting, the most spectacular crowd we have had this entire campaign."

Portland is a Democratic stronghold, known for its bike paths and green ethos. It was one of the few cities in the country to briefly allow gay marriage, frowns on plastic bags and chain restaurants alike and was christened "Little Beirut" by no less than President George H.W. Bush.

In August of 2004, then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry held a large rally in the same location, drawing about 45,000 people.

But on Sunday, Obama topped that without even being the official nominee, speaking to a crowd filled with sunscreen-smeared babies in sun hats, union members in matching T-shirts, elderly ladies fanning themselves under the hot sun and twenty-somethings dancing to his opening act, the Portland-based band The Decemberists.

Some voters lined up before dawn to see him, including Michelle Kay.

"We are all so sick of Bush, his lies, the war," she said. "When Obama came out he was so honest, so refreshing."

Others arrived at the last minute, such as Afang Tang-Christianson of Beaverton and her husband Daniel. She is due to give birth to twins in the next week or two, and the two had spent the morning at the hospital when she began feeling early contractions.

But after leaving, she said they came straight to the rally, adding, "It's all about a new beginning, a new start. We are really hoping for change in Washington."

In his speech, Obama was careful to nod to his opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, calling her "smart and tough," which drew approving applause from the crowd.

But he quickly moved to sharp criticism of the presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, repeatedly linking him with President Bush, who is lambasted on bumper stickers all over Portland. He drew loud cheers for his condemnation of the Iraq war and for his nod to Portland's mass transit and bicycle culture.

"If you vote for me, I promise we will not just win Oregon, we will win this nomination, we will win this general election and we will change the world," he said.

Demographically, Portland and its suburbs are stocked with the kinds of people who have been supporting Obama in droves: young, progressive, well-educated and financially stable.

Portland is also overwhelmingly white, though Hispanic and Asian groups have a presence in the city. That deprives Obama of one of his most dependable voting groups, African-Americans. Pollsters, however, have said Obama should win Oregon's Tuesday primary.

But he won't be in the state to celebrate. The Obama campaign announced it will spend Tuesday night in Iowa, a significant battleground state in November, as the candidate and his staff try to signal an end to the long primary season.

Prior to the afternoon rally at the park, Obama told seniors at an assisted living facility in Gresham that Republican John McCain would threaten the Social Security that they and millions like them depend on because he supports privatizing the program.

It was a significant attempt to tie the GOP's presidential nominee-in-waiting to an unpopular President Bush on a pocket book issue that motivates seniors - and also concerns younger generations worried about their own future retirement.

"Let me be clear, privatizing Social Security was a bad idea when George W. Bush proposed it, it's a bad idea today," Obama said. "That's why I stood up against this plan in the Senate and that's why I won't stand for it as president."

Bush proposed a Social Security plan in 2005 that focused on creating private accounts for younger workers, but it never came up for a vote in Congress. Democrats strongly opposed the idea and few Republicans embraced it.

Obama said McCain would push to raise the retirement age for collecting Social Security benefits or trim annual cost-of-living increases. Obama has rejected both ideas as solutions to the funding crisis projected for Social Security in favor of making higher-income workers pay more into the system.

"We have to protect Social Security for future generations without pushing the burden onto seniors who have earned the right to retire in dignity," he said.

McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds accused Obama of making "misinformed partisan attacks."

"John McCain has been clear about his belief that we must fix Social Security for future generations and keep our promises to today's retirees, but raising taxes should not be the answer to every problem," Bound said.

It was a day of coastal campaigning for the two Democrats still competing for the party's presidential nomination.

Obama was in Oregon, where he is favored to win the state's presidential primary on Tuesday. Hillary Rodham Clinton spent a second straight day in Kentucky, where she is favored to win when its voters head to the polls the same day.

She attended worship services at a Methodist church in Bowling Green, and happily sang hymns and joined in Bible readings. But her smile faded when the pastor launched into a sermon about adultery, asking his congregants whether the devil had ever whispered over their shoulders in their marriages.

Her mood appeared to brighten by the time she arrived for a rally at Western Kentucky University.

"Now, my opponent said the other day he wasn't coming back, so I've got the whole state to myself," Clinton said, sounding happy not to be sharing the Kentucky spotlight. "What a treat."

Obama, the front-runner for the nomination, has begun casting himself as the inevitable nominee and using his time to distinguish himself from McCain as he pivots toward the fall campaign. He has scheduled appearances later this week in Iowa and Florida, two key swing states.

He underscored that speaking with reporters in the Portland suburb of Milwaukie, saying he'll use the Iowa visit as another way to focus on November.

"We thought it was a terrific way to kind of bring things full circle," said Obama. "We still have some contests left but if Kentucky and Oregon go as we hope, then we think we will have a majority of pledged delegates at that point and that's a pretty significant mark, that means that after contests in every state, or almost every state and the territories, that we have received a majority of the delegates that are assigned by voters."

He declined to declare victory.

"It doesn't mean we've declared victory because I won't be the nominee until we have a combination of both pledged delegates and super delegates to hit the mark," said Obama. "What it does mean is the voters have given us a majority of delegates. Obviously that's what this primary and caucus process is all about."

During the meeting with seniors, Obama was asked why McCain seems to have avoided the enormous press scrutiny the Democrats have gotten.

Obama said McCain has benefited from a Republican nomination process that ended early while the Democratic race continues. He said the attention both candidates receive will grow more intense as the race settles into an Obama-McCain contest.

"It's very understandable that the press has focused on myself and Senator Clinton because it's been a pretty exciting race," Obama said. "The fact is that the press will submit him to the same scrutiny they are giving to me."

"People will lift the hood and kick the tires with John McCain, just like they do with me," he said, who traveled Sunday with his wife, Michelle.

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Associated Press writer Sara Kugler in Bowling Green, Ky., contributed to this report. 

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)