EL DORADO Thousands of supporters of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama filled a gymnasium here as the Democratic hopeful made his first visit to Kansas since he declared his candidacy for president.
After Obama spoke to the crowd at Butler Community College, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius joined him on stage to announce her endorsement of the junior senator, arousing the cheers of a jubilant audience.
Speaking in the hometown of his maternal grandfather, Obama laid out his plan for the presidency, describing how he would make education, health care and the environment cornerstones of his agenda. He decried the influence of lobbyists in policy making, and he pledged to make tax cuts for the very rich a thing of the past. The senator vowed to cut a tax break for senior citizens who earn less than $15,000 a year, and said ending the crisis in Darfur would be a priority of his administration.
Sebelius, who presented the Democrats' response to President Bush's State of the Union address on Monday, stood hand-in-hand with Obama after she had given her endorsement.
"Barack Obama has Midwestern values," she said, adding that Tuesday was Kansas Day, the day the state was admitted to the Union in 1847. "Values we know about. He understands how to bring people together across party lines."
Obama said he was tired of the divisive nature of politics.
"It's a vision of America that I am running for president to fundamentally reject," he said. "This election is our chance to restore the simple dream of those that came before us.
"The choice in this election, it's about the future versus the past," he said.
He praised the hard work and sacrifice of his grandparents, who came of age during the Great Depression. He told of how his family lived on food stamps when he was a young boy. But from sheer effort, he and his sister had the opportunity to succeed.
His story, he said, "is an American story. My story could only happen in the United States of America."
In addition to preaching unity, Obama pledged to invest billions of dollars in new energy means in states like Kansas and Missouri. He said money currently used to fund combat operations in Iraq would be better used developing solar and wind energy projects, which could add jobs to the region.
On the subject of health care, the candidate said he would pass health care reform by the end of his first term. He vowed that insurers would no longer exclude patients for a pre-existing condition and that the government would cut as much as $2,500 from patients' premiums.
"You pay my salary. You are my boss," Obama said. "I shouldn't have better health care than you."
The loudest cheers of the afternoon came not when Obama stated his opposition to the Iraq war, which he briefly mentioned, but when he discussed education.
Rousing cheers and a standing ovation followed his promise to reward good teachers with higher wages and to provide college students with a $4,000 tuition credit a year, in exchange for national service, with organizations such as the Peace Corps.
"We will invest in you, and you will invest in America, and together we will chart a new course together," Obama said, shouting to make himself heard over the boisterous crowd.
He touched upon the financial squeeze many are feeling because of a slowing economy.
"Our economy is out of balance," Obama said. "People need help right now."
To help future retirees, Obama said he would require employers to set up direct deposit retirement funds, where employees could choose a certain amount of money to save. He said the federal government would match those funds for low-income families and pledged to raise the minimum wage annually.
Thousands stood in blowing flurries and 20-degree weather as the line of foot-stomping, hand-rubbing Obama supporters snaked around the gymnasium at Butler Community College. Not all of them would get in. A fire marshal's estimate said 2,300 people filled the basketball gymnasium, while several hundred more populated overflow areas in a theater and athletic training center near the gym. They were able to watch the rally via closed-circuit television.
Cindy Miles, a spokeswoman for Butler Community College, said her staff set up a "triage" on Monday to accommodate a flood of phone calls from the media. Crews from local media and national media outlets hovered around the stage, which seated more Obama supporters.
"It's a huge event for us," Miles said, calling it the most attention the school has had since the president's mother, Barbara Bush, visited El Dorado in 2001.
"It's great exposure for Butler. We do this more to give the students and community a chance to interact with a presidential candidate because for some that can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Obama stayed in the region Tuesday night, giving a speech at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo.