by John McCormick
CASPER, Wyo. – Campaigning in Republican-leaning Wyoming today, Sen. Barack Obama left out one of his standard joke lines: the one about being disappointed to learn recently that Dick Cheney is a distant cousin.
The riff (at the vice president's expense) usually gets big laughs in front of Democratic crowds, but Obama dropped it from his first appearance in Cheney's home state, a place that will hold its presidential nominating caucuses Saturday.
"It is great to be in the Cowboy State," Obama started his appearance here in front of a crowd his campaign said totaled about 1,200.
The Illinois Democrat also responded to Sen. Hillary Clinton's suggestions earlier today that he is not as committed to a rapid Iraq withdrawal as his campaign rhetoric suggests. In making her case, she had used a BBC interview with an Obama adviser who stepped down from the campaign today.
"Sen. Clinton used this to try to imply that I wasn't serious about bringing this war to an end," Obama said. "I don't want anybody here to be confused. I was opposed to this war in 2002. If it had been up to me, we would never been in this war. It was because of George Bush, with an assist from Hillary Clinton and John McCain, that we entered into this war…I will bring this war to an end in 2009, so don't be confused. Don't be confused, when Sen. Clinton is not even willing to acknowledge that for voted for war…I don't want to play politics on this issue because she doesn't have standing to question my positions on this issue."
During the question-and-answer portion of an event at a recreational center here, Obama was asked about the nation's space program.
"I grew up on Star Trek," Obama said. "I believe in the final frontier."
But Obama said he does not agree with the way the space program is now being run and thinks funding should be trimmed until the mission is clearer.
"NASA has lost focus and is no longer associated with inspiration," he said. "I don't think our kids are watching the space shuttle launches. It used to be a remarkable thing. It doesn't even pass for news anymore."
Obama also used a new line to respond to a Clinton ad that suggests he is not ready to handle a White House crisis during the middle of the night.
"That was designed to feed into your fears," he said. "What do people think I'm going to do? I'm going to answer the phone."
Dr. Curtis Li, a Casper cardiologist who attended the event, said Obama's visit helped secure his vote.
"This helps confirm my convictions," he said. "Seeing him in person … enforces my decision."
Before the town hall, Obama stopped at Johnny J's Diner in Casper to pose for photos and shake a few dozen hands.
"Sorry to cause a ruckus," he said as he walked in. "I was just coming in to get a burger."
Obama did indeed order a burger (with cheese) and a vanilla shake. He toyed with the idea of a slice of pie, too, but passed.
As the cameras and cell phones snapped photos, Obama worked both sides of the restaurant, shaking dozens of hands.
Chris Crossen, 49, a self-employed financial adviser who works across the street from the diner, stopped Obama to ask him about his health care plan.
Later, Crossen said he is an independent voter who plans to vote Saturday. He said he remains undecided, but knocked both Obama and Clinton on experience. "Neither one of them has a lot of foreign policy experience," he said.
Obama was asked by a reporter about the latest flap over one of his advisers and whether he was being drawn into a knife fight with Clinton.
"No," he said. "I wasn't…drawn into a knife fight."
But Obama did not want to further discuss the matter.
"Let me talk to the folks," he said. "Thank you."
As Obama was about to walk out of the restaurant, he learned that there was a high school journalist in the diner and said he wanted to stop to answer a few questions.
Mollie Smith, 18, the editor of the paper at Kelly Walsh High School in Casper, asked him why it was important to come to Wyoming and whether he thought he could win over any Republicans here.
"We've got a very close election in the Democratic primary and Wyoming is going to be caucusing on Saturday," Obama said. "So, people who want to participate in the Democratic caucus, they have a chance to choose who the next Democratic nominee is going to be. And I'm very excited about getting some support here in Wyoming."
Obama said he hopes to win over some of the state's Republican voters.
"Usually we get Republicans to come to our town hall meetings, and some of them already support me and some of them are just curious and want to find out what I have to say," he said. "Hopefully, we change some minds in the process."
After walking outside the diner, Obama seemed a little confused about where he was on this sunny day. "It's really nice in Wisconsin and Wyoming," he said without missing a beat and just before getting into an SUV.
Obama will spend about eight hours on the ground in Wyoming, a state with a population of only about 500,000 and with just 12 pledged delegates up for grabs on Saturday.
The state is the 44th Obama has visited since he announced his presidential bid in February 2007.