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Obama has built a solid liberal record

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama appeals to a cross-section of America as an eloquent speaker with the potential to bridge a political battlefield bloodied by years of fighting. But underlying the Chicago Democrat's sudden rise to fame over the past two years is a solid liberal record built over 10 years in Springfield and Washington, D.C. It's the kind of record that, no doubt, will help him in such places as Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses should he run for the presidency. But it could leave some people questioning his ability to narrow the partisan divide. Obama, who objects to ideological labels, wins high marks from progressives on environment, abortion and labor issues, as well as on civil liberties and education, all of which are vital to winning the Democratic Party's presidential nominating process. He also clearly spoke out against going to war in Iraq in 2002. And just last week he took a hard line on President Bush's plan to boost troop levels in that war-torn country, proposing a cap and a phased withdrawal. Last year, Obama got 100 percent scores from the AFL-CIO, League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood and an &#8220A” rating from the National Education Association on their most recent scorecards. &#8220He's really been a champion on a number of environmental issues,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters. Obama won praise from the group by opposing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and parts of the Gulf of Mexico. National Journal, the Washington, D.C., magazine, gave Obama an 82.5 liberal rating in 2005, ranking him 16th out of 44 Democratic senators. Potential presidential rivals Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Joe Biden, D-Del., ranked slightly less liberal in the publication's rankings. The 2006 rankings aren't available yet. Obama has, on occasion, leveled criticism at his party, such as when he urged a greater embrace of faith and argued against overuse of such tactics as the filibuster to stop judicial nominations. That willingness to step out, as well as a sense that he represents a break from the old-style politics, is something the senator tapped into when he announced last Tuesday that he had formed a presidential exploratory committee, calling the &#8220smallness of our politics” his greatest concern. &#8220We have to change our politics and come together around our common interests,” Obama said on his Web site. One challenge he will face is fleshing that out, said former Iowa Democratic Party chairman Gordon Fischer. &#8220When he talks about a new kind of politics, what does he mean by that?” asked Fischer, who's backing former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack for the party's nomination. &#8220He's going to have to put some meat on those bones.” Obama's chief spokesman, however, said there are ample examples over the past 10 years that point to the senator as a person capable of changing the political culture. &#8220Look at what he's introduced, who he's introduced it with and how he's introduced it, and you'll see he's capable, throughout his time in public life, of bringing people together,” said Robert Gibbs, his communications director. One example is Obama's partnership with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., one of the Senate's most conservative members. The two introduced legislation last year to make it easier to find the identities of recipients of federal funding and financial assistance. When a hold was put on the bill, bloggers and editorial writers took up the cause to get it lifted. The measure was eventually signed into law. &#8220That's a feather in their cap,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog based in Washington, D.C. &#8220He's certainly been willing to reach across the aisle, and you could say far across the aisle.” Obama votes mostly with majority Democrats, but there are exceptions. He backed a free trade agreement last year with the Middle East country of Oman, saying the financial impact was small and it was worth it to expand engagement in the region. He also has pushed for the creation of an outside agency to investigate ethics abuses in the Senate. Obama's eight-year legislative record in Springfield is lengthier than his Washington resume, and it may be a place where critics look for ammunition should he launch a presidential bid. But, as in Washington, Obama's votes there are likely to be well-received by voters choosing a Democratic nominee. As a member of the Illinois Senate, Obama supported a single-payer health care plan run by the state and voted for an increase in the minimum wage. He also endorsed embryonic stem cell research and, in 2003, co-sponsored legislation that would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. He voted against allowing people to claim self-defense if they used a gun in their home. The measure would have affected only residents of towns where local handgun bans were in effect. But he also voted in favor of allowing retired police officers to carry concealed weapons. Gibbs said that would be his only exception to a prohibition against the right to carry a concealed weapon. On abortion, Obama voted against a measure designed to protect what supporters termed live babies born during abortion procedures. Ed Tibbetts can be reached at (563) 383-2327 or etibbetts@qctimes.com. Kurt Erickson can be reached at (217) 789-0865 or at kurt.erickson@lee.net.

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