Obama steps into the lion’s den

In a speech about service to one’s country, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to increase the ground forces in the United States military, greatly expand the AmeriCorps program and require public service of schoolchildren if he is elected.

Obama was in conservative Colorado Springs — what some Democrats consider enemy territory — on Wednesday morning to deliver his speech on service to a small group of 200 invited guests at the Lion’s Den Gym on the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs (UCCS) campus.

"Loving your country shouldn’t just mean watching fireworks on the 4th of July," Obama said to the crowd. "Loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it. If you do, your life will be richer, and our country will be stronger."

During the 30-minute speech, Obama said he would increase the number of ground troops in the country’s military service by 92,000 "boots" and expand AmeriCorps to 250,000 people. He also said he will call on Americans to join an Energy Corps to conduct renewable energy research and double the size of the Peace Corps by 2011, in hopes of "renewing our diplomacy" worldwide.

Referencing President John F. Kennedy’s call for service decades ago, Obama said the fabric of a strong country is built from the bottom up, not the top down.

"We need your service, right now, at this moment — our moment — in history," Obama said. "I’m not going to tell you what your role should be; that’s for you to discover. But I am going to ask you to play your part; ask you to stand up; ask you to put your foot firmly into the current of history."

Saying young children who serve their communities are more likely to attend college, Obama also said he would set a goal for all American middle- and high-school students to perform 50 hours of service a year — achievable by tying federal assistance to school districts developing service programs. At the college level, Obama proposed a $4,000 tax credit for any college student who performs 100 hours of service a year.

"You invest in America, and America invests in you — that’s how we’re going to make sure that college is affordable for every single American while preparing our nation to compete in the 21st century," Obama said.

A gathered crowd of 200 invited people wait to listen to Barack Obama give a campaign speech in Colorado SpringsEl Paso County Republicans, some of whom were camped outside the event, said Obama’s call for service was commendable but questioned how he would pay for expensive tax credits like the one offered to college students.

"Sen. Barack Obama is going to continue putting off how he is going to pay for this and the bottom line is we need to be asking who is going to pay for this," said Nathan Fisk, executive director of the El Paso County Republican Party. "If half of the students in America took him up on the [$4,000 credit], it would cost $3.2 billion. That is a lot of money for Colorado taxpayers who are already stretched thin."

One audience member who was pleased to hear Obama’s message for students was UCCS student Julie Peters.

Peters, who had only heard about the event Wednesday morning and put her name onto a sign-up sheet for students to get in, said she appreciated Obama’s call to serve.

"I really liked the way he spoke about his plan for college students," Peters said after the speech. "I thought he addressed something that is important to people here and I liked that. I thought it was good."

Obama took the campaign hat off after his service speech, making visits to the nearby military commands at Peterson Air Force Base, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, and the Air Force Academy in his official capacity as a U.S. senator, before heading to a private $1,000-per-person fundraising event, also in Colorado Springs, Wednesday night.

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