(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
BUTTE, Mont. (AP) -- Hunting for votes out West, Democrat Barack Obama on Saturday rejected the idea that the region's sparsely populated states aren't important in the presidential race and renewed his promise to appoint a high-level adviser on Indian issues if elected.
Obama also cast his usual message in more Western-friendly terms, talking about clean-coal technology as a way of protecting Montana's beautiful mountains and civil liberties as part of the state's tradition of independence.
An Obama supporter had scolded all the presidential candidates earlier for not addressing Western issues.
Montana and neighboring states have only a handful of delegates, but every one of them is valuable as Obama seeks to keep Hillary Rodham Clinton from narrowing his lead heading toward the nomination convention.
Obama, speaking at the Montana Democrats' annual Mansfield-Metcalf Dinner, mocked the suggestion from Clinton's campaign earlier this year that his lead is suspect because he won lightly contested small states that hold caucuses while losing some big states with primary elections.
"There are people saying Obama wins all these little states, all these caucus states, these small little Western states. I don't know about you, but I think they're pretty important," Obama told the crowd of 4,000.
And in a state where more than 6 percent of the population is American Indian, Obama talked about improving health and education for Indians. He promised to appoint a senior White House adviser on the subject and host an annual meeting of tribal leaders.
The campaign noted that Obama released a position paper involving Western issues before the Nevada primary earlier this year and has also spelled out his views on hunting and other rural concerns.
Even Obama's standard stump speech took on a Western tone.
He acknowledged his support of clean-energy technology might worry voters in a region that produces lots of coal.
"I know Montana's a coal state. My home state, Illinois, is a coal state, but we've got to make sure that we are investing in technologies that capture carbon because we can't sustain the planet the way that we're doing it right now," Obama said, speaking to 8,000 people at a college arena in Missoula. "Look at this incredible landscape around you. We've got to pass that on."
Accusing President Bush of weakening civil rights, Obama appealed to the independent pioneer tradition of his audience. "If you live out here in big sky country, I know you believe in civil liberties," he said.
Obama even expressed interest in learning to fly fish and mused over Missoula's name.
"Here's the thing, Missoula - I just like saying Missoula, by the way. It's a good name. Missoula. A lot of vowels," Obama said.
Montana's primary is June 3 and will decide 17 delegates. Two of the state's eight superdelegates have endorsed Obama, and the rest say they will decide after the primary.
Obama picked up the endorsement of Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a former Clinton administration appointee, on Wednesday - his latest from a Western governor. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former energy secretary and UN ambassador under Clinton, announced his support for Obama in March and at least two other Western governors also have come out in favor of Obama.
Freudenthal had complained earlier that none of the candidates, Republicans or Democrats, were addressing Western issues.