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Obama revs up Tampa with $1.25 billion in rail money

TAMPA

His agenda on the rocks in Washington, President Barack Obama returned to campaign mode Thursday, revving up an adoring crowd in Tampa and promising to do the same with the economy.

The rowdy town hall-style meeting at the University of Tampa looked nearly identical to one of his 2008 campaign rallies, right down to chants of "Yes, we can!" But even at his best on the trail, candidate Obama could not deliver the kind of goods President Obama did in Tampa: a $1.25 billion federal grant to start building a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando.

"We are going to start building a new high-speed rail line right here in Tampa, building for the future, putting people to work," Obama told the crowd of nearly 3,000 inside a gymnasium. "I'm excited. I'm going to come back down here and ride it. Joe and I — you all have a date."

The president and Vice President Joe Biden returned to the biggest battleground region in America's biggest battleground state the morning after Obama's State of the Union speech and the day before he is scheduled to meet with House Republican leaders in Baltimore.

"We've gone through a very difficult year, but I have great optimism that we have begun to dig ourselves out of this hole,'' said Obama, who despite his lofty post-partisan campaign rhetoric has proven to be a deeply polarizing president. "In order for us to do it successfully, we're going to have to work together, we're going to have to listen to each other, we're going to have to be respectful of each other."

The visit put Gov. Charlie Crist in a particularly awkward spot.

The governor has been touting the importance of high-speed rail for months, so ignoring a president coming to deliver more than a billion dollars for rail would have raised eyebrows. But Crist also faces a tough U.S. Senate primary where he is forever being hammered for endorsing the $787 billion stimulus package and hugging Obama on stage in Fort Myers nearly a year ago.

There was no Obama-Crist hug at MacDill Air Force Base, just a somber handshake as cameras rolled.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush appeared on the Today show Thursday and said he agreed with Crist's decision to welcome the president — but not to endorse the stimulus package that funded the high-speed rail grant.

"I think it's more than appropriate. It's not a sign of support,'' Bush said. "I wouldn't necessarily have embraced the stimulus plan that did not have support in the state and campaign for it and put Republicans in a vulnerable position in Congress."

Crist steered clear of Obama's main event, where the president drew ear-splitting cheers.

"We ran to get the tough stuff done," Obama said. "I make no apology for trying to fix stuff that's hard.

"Change never comes without a fight, Florida. So I won't stop fighting; I know you won't, either.''

"You're doing a good job," someone yelled from the crowd.

The president and vice president rarely travel together, but Biden has overseen the economic stimulus package and also is a longtime rail advocate and expert.

"It will change the way which we go from place to place, change the ways we work and live, and will connect communities to each other in a way that in the past was impossible,'' Biden said of the administration's rail program. "Just like the Interstate Highway structure did back in the mid '50s, it will have far-reaching consequences."

Among the many local officials on hand at the Bob Martinez Sports Center was state Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, who said the high-speed rail money is huge for Tampa Bay in terms of bolstering the economy and bringing jobs to Florida.

"To make it a true success, the regional mass transit is going to have to come through," said Justice, who voted against rail initiatives the state Legislature recently approved, partly because of concerns about the state's liability.

Joe Robinson, a Tampa mechanical engineer, arrived wearing a Kevin White for Hillsborough County Commission T-shirt and a whistle around his neck. He said he planned to blow it loud and long when Obama announced the funding for high-speed rail. "The train is leaving the station, and we just want to make sure African-American companies are going to get a piece of this," he said.

Republican Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita said she was putting party politics aside and was excited to hear the president speak. The high-speed rail money, she said, would likely build momentum for Hillsborough County's rail efforts.

The County Commission in the coming months will consider a referendum on a 1-cent sales tax to pay for light rail, expanded bus service and road improvements in Hillsborough County.

"My hope is it will inspire people to vote for the local referendum so we can connect to it. The high-speed rail can't just go there and stop,'' Tampa City Council member John Dingfelder said.

The crowd was overwhelmingly dominated by supporters of the president, but Obama faced some unpredictable questions.

The first came from a University of South Florida student who called on the president to condemn Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.

"I will never waver from ensuring Israel's security,'' Obama said.

Clearwater businessman Steve Gordon complained that the administration's efforts to help small businesses are inadequate because banks simply aren't loaning money to help expansions. The president offered little specific assurance that would change soon.

A University of Tampa student asked about ensuring same-sex couples are treated as equal citizens.

"Regardless of your personal opinions," Obama said, "the notion that somebody who's working really hard for 30 years can't take their death benefits and transfer them to the person that they love the most in the world and who has supported them all their lives, that just doesn't seem fair. It doesn't seem right." Obama said he was hoping to sees a law passed that will apply to federal workers.

University of Tampa sophomores Rebecca Coogan and Maggie Redmond, both 19, trembled and screamed after running down from their bleacher seats to get a close-up look at the president and vice president shaking hands in the crowd.

Coogan made sure to get a cell phone picture that captured both the leaders and her Obama shoulder bag.

"He's not a robot," Coogan said. "He's a human being."

"He's such a modern thinker," Redmond said. "He makes me want to be involved."

"I'm going to freak out!" Coogan said.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Praise and questions amid grant news

How far will $1.25 billion take Florida in building a high speed rail? And where will it find the additional money? Tampa Bay, 1B

Dockery savors the triumph

Republican and rail advocate C.C. Dockery cheered the award. "It's a culmination of everything I've worked for for 28 years." 9A

People, pomp and pageantry

Memorable moments from town hall meeting and photos. 8A

Obama revs up Tampa with $1.25 billion in rail money 01/28/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 8:49am]
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