Butte_Barack Obama wants to make something clear: He loves America.
After a series of incidents that prompted questions about his patriotism, the Democratic presidential candidate is peppering speeches with explicit statements on his love of country.
"I love this country not because it's perfect but because we've always been able to move it closer to perfection," he told an audience in North Dakota.
And in Montana: "It's a country where ... I've seen ordinary Americans find justice, where I've seen progress made for working families who need leaders who are willing to stand up and fight for them. That is the country I love."
Obama also stirs crowds into a frenzy of cheering and clapping when he talks about treating military veterans with respect, of giving them the best possible equipment, of providing top-notch health care for the wounded.
"They have earned our respect," the Illinois senator exclaims.
Such patriotic statements could be an effort to reassure voters wondering about whether he truly loves the country.
First came questions about why he doesn't wear a flag lapel pin. Obama said he thinks true patriotism is demonstrated by a person's actions, not his lapel.
Then came a wave of e-mails with a picture that supposedly showed him refusing to put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. Obama said the picture was actually taken during the national anthem, and he was singing.
More recently, and more seriously for Obama, his wife was quoted as saying the country's response to his campaign had made her proud of America for the first time. And his pastor was seen criticizing the country in endlessly repeated video excerpts of sermons criticizing government racism.
"Not 'God Bless America' - God damn America!" said the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who also called the country the "U.S. of KKK-A."
Polls haven't shown any major political damage to Obama from such comments, but critics have used them to suggest that Obama isn't patriotic - not an idea he wants in the minds of Pennsylvania and Indiana voters as critical primaries approach.
At a recent town hall event in Pennsylvania, one voter said he was concerned that Republicans would dominate Democrats again on appearing patriotic. He urged Obama to give a speech on patriotism like the one he delivered on race after his pastor's comments became a political issue.
His campaign denies Obama has intentionally stepped up the patriotic language in his recent speeches. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said he has long included references to his love of America and additional mentions are probably a result of adjusting his speeches to different regions of the country or responding to questions.
Obama's speeches have always emphasized optimism about the country, particularly the idea that many different groups with separate interests can be brought together to improve America.
But Obama is smart to go even further now, said Rogers Smith, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
He called it crucial for Obama to attract more white, blue-collar voters if he is to narrow Hillary Rodham Clinton's lead in the state. A candidate with an unusual name, an exotic family history and a minister criticizing the country needs to reassure those voters, Smith said.
"Many are deeply patriotic and they are willing to vote Democrat, but they do want to know it's a Democrat like themselves, somebody with a strong sense of support for military service, for loyalty to the nation," Smith said.
Clinton also makes a point of reminding voters of her patriotism. "I'm offering myself as a fighter for America because I think America is worth fighting for," the New York senator said Sunday in Montana.
But election observers there and elsewhere aren't sure primary voters are weighing patriotism.
Nancy Woodruff, a member of the Whitefish, Mont., city council, joined about 4,000 other Montana Democrats at a rally Saturday where both Clinton and Obama spoke. Afterward, she detected no sign that people were dubious about Obama.
"I heard more people who were sort of over the top about Obama than Hillary," said Woodruff, who favors Clinton.
And in Indianapolis, the county's former Democratic chairman said the vast majority of primary voters understand Obama loves America.
"There may be some people who question his patriotism," said Ed Treacy, "but he's never going to get their vote anyway."
Associated Press writers Beth Fouhy and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.Christopher Wills, AP Writer © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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