By Karin Caifa in Atlanta
Barack Obama is taking his message for the people directly to the people. So while five of his rivals for the Democratic nomination prepped to face off at an AARP forum in Davenport, Iowa, Thursday evening, Obama was about 800 miles east in Atlanta.
The Illinois senator skipped the debate to speak to a crowd of about 2,000, riffing about the racial tensions in Jena, Louisiana, a controversial anti-war ad, and the need for change to the current climate in Washington.
Members of Thursday's crowd paid between $15-$25 for admission to the event, and waited about two hours for the candidate to speak. While waiting for the Illinois senator, the audience heard from Atlanta Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins (who, despite the NBA legend's support, Obama would later dub his "second-favorite dunker," behind Chicago's Michael Jordan) and R-and-B star Usher, among other Obama supporters.
When Obama finally took the stage, sporting a tie but with his shirt sleeves rolled up, he made multiple references to the "Jena Six," the group of black high school students charged with attempted murder in Jena, Louisiana. A contingent of about a dozen or so students in the audience wore t-shirts showing their support for the young men. Earlier in the week the Rev. Jesse Jackson, an Obama supporter, criticized the candidate for not using his high-profile position to bring attention to the matter and other situations like it. On Thursday Obama said the Jena case is just one of many injustices that go unnoticed in this country every day.
"It's not to excuse violence," Obama said of the schoolyard brawl in the Louisiana town. "What people are asking for is simply that the system of justice is fair."
Trailing frontrunner Hillary Clinton by 18 points in the latest CNN/Opinion Research poll, Obama took aim at the perception that he's not seasoned enough for the Oval Office. "I'm not so sure I want that seasoning," he said of Beltway culture.
"Politics has never been a game to me," Obama told the crowd. "Politics has been a mission to me. You don't need someone who can play the game," he added in another swipe at Clinton. "You need someone who can change the game plan."
He chastised the Senate motion to condemn last week's MoveOn.Org newspaper ad attacking General David Petraeus. Obama skipped the Capitol Hill vote on the amendment, which got the support of rivals Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd. A written statement from Obama called his absence, "my protest against this empty politics."
He continued to remind the Atlanta crowd of his consistent stance against the war, noting that the 275 million dollars per day the Iraq is costing would better be spent on schools and universal health care.
Obama wrapped up his appearance by leading the crowd in a chant: "Atlanta, are you fired up? Are you ready to go?" The audience resoundingly responded, "Yes!"
"Let's go change the world," he concluded, leaving the stage and shaking hands with supporters on his way out the door.