CLIPS: More than 20,000 enthusiastically welcome Obama to Penn State (03/31/08)

Of The Patriot-News

As Barack Obama emerged in front of an estimated crowd of 22,000 in front of Old Main on the Penn State University campus, Ashley Sims shouted the kind of welcome usually reserved for pop stars.

“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! I love you, Barack! Look at me! Hi!”

This from a 24-year-old graduate student who customized her cell phone’s ring tone as the Obama Girl tune, “I’ve Got a Crush on Obama.”

When speaking about Obama, she has a dreamy look in her eyes, clasps her hands to her chest, and pauses in the middle of sentences as if she just can’t find the words.

“I didn’t know that he was possible,” she said.

Yep, this was comfortable territory for Obama.

The Democratic presidential candidate usually plays well to young voters, and students at Penn State were fired up. A line to enter the rally spanned almost a mile, snaking around campus sidewalks.

At 11:45 a.m., Hershey High School alumni Cayla Rasi and Andrew Mackay arrived at the back of the line. Two hours later, they got in just in time to see the beginning of Obama ‘s speech, but there were people behind them who never made it in.

“It’s really amazing everyone got up after a Saturday night at Penn State,” Rasi said.

Sean Perugini, a junior from Harleysville, Montgomery County, partied late Saturday, but Obama was worth waking up early for, he said. That’s quite an honor in his book.

He even bought an Obama T-shirt after the speech. That’s something he would not have done four years ago, he said.

At a time when he doesn’t feel like his government is listening to him, Obama has affirmed his faith in democracy, Perugini said.

“This is what we need, someone to uplift us, someone to get the young people involved,” Perugini said.

Obama also won favor from the crowd by discussing a plan for a $4,000 tuition credit, which he said would be given to students only after they’ve performed community service.

His critics like to poke at his talk about hope, but it’s a welcome message, freshman Nicole Lee Ritschel of Sunbury said.

“He says he needs people behind him the whole way, not just to the voting booth,” Ritschel said.

And, she said, she believes him.

Obama stayed at the Nittany Lion Inn on Saturday night and shot hoops with Sen. Bob Casey at the Bryce Jordan Center on Sunday morning.

Obama filled the “insert-local-reference-here” portion of the speech by accepting a football jersey from Penn State cornerback Lydell Sargeant and telling the crowd that he had a talk with football coach Joe Paterno.

“We decided after we get this whole thing settled, I’m going to have to come back and watch a football game,” Obama said.