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Obama speaks to packed Alerus Center on opening day of North Dakota Democratic Convention

GRAND FORKS -- He came. He spoke. He got a hockey stick.

"Uff-da," Sen. Barack Obama quipped to the roaring, stomping, wall-to-wall crowd in the Alerus Center on Friday after the state's congressional delegation presented him with a University of North Dakota Sioux hockey stick.

The Democratic presidential candidate said he was deeply honored to receive the gift but promised he'd never wield it "because my hockey game is worse than my bowling." It was a reference video shown nationwide this past week of him rolling gutter balls and scoring a 37.

The Illinois senator's 34-minute speech to the North Dakota Democratic-NPL state convention and 12,000 to 15,000 other fans who came from North Dakota, Minnesota, Manitoba and from as far away as New Jersey went beyond hockey stick jokes.

After entering to the accompaniment of U2's "City of Blinding Lights," he said this year's election represents a defining moment in the country's history.

He spoke of Dr. Martin Luther King, assassinated 40 years ago Friday, who once said "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Obama told the audience, "We need you to put your hand on the arc of justice."

Knowing his rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, would be speaking to the same audience less than two hours later, he appealed to people to install one or the other in the White House instead of Republican Sen. John McCain.

"The other side has chosen to run as the party of yesterday; that's why were running as the party of tomorrow," he said. "Either Sen. Clinton or I would do a far better job of leading this country over the next four years than Sen. John McCain. That is something we can all agree to." The crowd screamed its approval.

He said a McCain presidency would be nothing more than a George Bush third term.

Referring to record turnout among Democrats in primaries and caucuses all over the country, he said "People are paying attention like never before.... because the name George W. Bush won't be on the ballot, prompting another approving roar from the crowd.

But he did jab at Clinton when he said he's always believed North Dakota counted, that it's not a "flyover" state, a reference to his campaign's decision to put paid staff here in the run-up to the Feb. 5, presidential preference caucus, in which he won 61 percent of the vote to Clinton's 37 percent. Clinton did not put staff in the state.

"We didn't write off North Dakota. We competed in this caucus and we'll keep competing in this state all the way to November," he said.

Convention delegates below the stage, on the Alerus floor stood through much of the speech, until Obama said, "Feel free to have a seat, guys, that's why you got chairs."

Obama hit the standard Democratic themes, railing against current government policy in which there are tax breaks for companies for sending jobs overseas, tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and tax breaks for "people that don't need them and didn't ask for them."

He said, "That's not policy, its dogma."

He said he wants to put America on a different path and be the party of tomorrow, "and that is why I'm running for president of the United States," which brought the audience to their feet.

The Republican National Committee responded to Obama's address on behalf of McCain.

"It appears that all Barack Obama has to offer the voters of North Dakota is more negative rhetoric and hypocritical attacks and tonight he has shown his inexperience on a wide spectrum of issues," said Chris Taylor, an RNC spokesman. "Rather than mischaracterize John McCain's words and ideas, Obama would be better suited to explain to voters how he will raise taxes across the board, as well as clarify his ever-changing plans for Iraq."

Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.