TAMPA — The line outside the St. Pete Times Forum started forming early Wednesday morning. By 10 a.m. it wound around the building. People young and old, black and white, parents and children.
More than 15,000 people turned out to see Sen. Barack Obama in his first Florida campaign rally since the Democratic presidential candidates boycotted the state during the primary season. With a less-than-capacity crowd, worries about parking and traffic snarls proved unfounded, and by 11:30 a.m. people moved swiftly through the 25 metal detectors at the entrance.
Spectators streamed in clutching cameras and snacking on hot dogs, nachos and sodas from concession stands while speakers blared a playlist that included a heavy dose of Stevie Wonder tracks.
As Obama made his way to the podium just before 1 p.m., the cheers reached rock-concert decibel levels.
"It's good to be back in Florida," Obama told the enthusiastic crowd, who occasionally chanted "O-bam-a! O-bam-a!" before and during the 35-minute speech. "I know you guys have been holding down the fort."
Supporters screamed out, "We love you," and Obama answered, "I love you back." They booed at the mention of George Bush. They stood and cheered wildly when he promised to unite the country. And they pumped their fists in the air and chanted "Yes we can" when Obama pledged to bring together all Americans — black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay and straight.
Though the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination continues, Obama spoke as if he were already the winner.
He commended Hillary Rodham Clinton for running an outstanding campaign, and predicted the party would unify by November.
He spent significantly more time outlining the differences between himself and John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
He repeatedly characterized a vote for McCain as a vote for four more years of George Bush policies, rapped the Arizona senator for having lobbyists on his campaign staff and said he would be happy to debate McCain on foreign policy.
"He has been spending the last week describing his foreign policy by describing who he won't talk to," Obama said. "That's your foreign policy?"
Obama said he would meet with both friends and enemies.
"We have to communicate with countries if we want to make a difference," he said. "That's what John Kennedy did. That's what Ronald Reagan did. That's what Barack Obama will do."
He also criticized McCain for proposing a gas tax holiday this summer, calling it nothing more than an "election-year gimmick" that wouldn't prompt oil companies to lower gas prices and would save consumers only about $28 each, money that is needed to rebuild roads and bridges.
Obama outlined key components of his own platform, including:
• A $1,000 per family tax cut paid for by closing corporate tax loopholes.
• A $4,000 yearly college-tuition credit to every student in exchange for community service.
• Eliminating income taxes on Social Security payments.
• Changing corporate bankruptcy laws to protect worker pensions.
• A $150-billion investment over 10 years in alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power, and biodiesel fuel.
Investing in alternative energy will create new jobs, protect the environment and lessen the country's dependence on foreign oil, he said.
Obama also said he would put 2-million people to work by investing in improvements to roads, bridges and mass transit. How to pay for that?
"If we can spend $10-billion a month in Iraq we can spend $10-billion a month right here in the United States of America," he said.
The Illinois senator said to accomplish his goals the country will need to change its foreign policy. He pledged to end the war in Iraq in 2009, while maintaining obligations in Afghanistan.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, a pre-rally speaker, used the occasion to announce her endorsement of Obama. She said he is a man with "uncommon gifts," including an ability to connect with "everyday people."
After Obama's speech, audience members gushed.
"That was phenomenal," enthused Marcus Brewer, 23, who drove from Palmetto for the event. He said he liked Obama's remarks about health care, jobs, education and mass transit.
Marquisha Wynn, 19, said seeing Obama live was much more impressive than the YouTube clips she has watched. Her friend Cynthia De LaGarza, 18, said Obama had inspired her interest in politics, something her Jehovah's Witness parents frown upon.
"I'm going to get in trouble for being here," she said. "But I love him."
The diversity of the crowd caught Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch's eye.
"It's black, white, old, young," he said. "There is an unprecedented amount of energy."
State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said his support for Obama goes beyond the color of his skin.
"I'm here not because Obama is black," Rouson said. "But because he represents the greatness of this country."
Times staff writers Adam C. Smith, Demorris Lee, Thomas Lake and Justin George contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.