Riding momentum, Obama fires up crowdsinto party mood

( dpa ) - Cheers and screams swelled to rock- concert volume as Barack Obama walked on stage, riding momentum he hopes will carry him to the US presidency.

"Wow, look at this crowd," he shouted into the university basketball arena, packed to near capacity with 17,500 people. "I'm pretty fired up. I am ready to go, and I hope you are, too."

They were. The African-American senator from Illinois was counting on supporters in three state primaries Tuesday, part of his battle with Senator Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

Fresh from sweeping five preference polls last weekend, Obama is holding rallies in bigger venues than the former first lady. On Monday, the University of Maryland basketball arena was filled with the mostly younger voters swept up by his message of political and generational change.

Marcy Phillips, 35, wrapped herself in a skirt made from blue, plastic Obama campaign banners.

"I love him," she screamed, swaying to a funk beat pumping from the sound system.

A young white man in the stands waved a home-made sign, "Barack is my homeboy." Chants of "O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma" interrupted the candidate's speech.

To his fans, Obama, 46, is the most exciting candidate in the 2008 race to replace President George W Bush. His stirring pledges to unite the nation - Democrats and Republicans, whites and blacks - to tackle domestic problems, bring troops home from Iraq and restore US moral leadership resonate with a weary electorate.

"And we will go forward and change the world," he declared Monday.

Perhaps more than anything, Obama's appeal is about a break with the past - the Republican Bush family as well as Hillary and her husband, former president Bill Clinton - and making Americans feel good about their country again. His powerful nationwide grass-roots organizing effort has helped mobilize voters.

"It was really incredible. He's even more charismatic in person," teacher Amy Roberts, 34, said after a rally Sunday outside Washington. "I think that he's a man who really does represent change for the country, a different face of America."

Hillary Clinton, 60, says that Obama lacks experience and is more talk than substance. While she is widely known, voters still seem to be discovering Obama.

Bank employee Jean Allen, an African-American, was impressed by Obama's multiracial appeal and apparent calm under pressure against attacks by the Clinton camp.

"We need someone who is not easily shaken. He's got a level head," she said. "He never gets flustered."

Television producer Breanna Cowe, 27, was looking for more details behind the campaign speeches before committing.

"Obama talks about change, but he doesn't always give supporting evidence of what the change might be," she said.

Six weeks into the series of state contests to choose the two major-party presidential candidates, Clinton and Obama are in a dead heat in the fight to lead the Democrats into the November 4 general election.

Both scheduled last-minute pitches to loyalists in three jurisdictions holding primaries Tuesday - Maryland, Virginia and the federal city of Washington.

At the sprawling University of Maryland campus, some in the Obama crowd lined up in sub-freezing cold for more than two hours to get a seat in the arena.

At the end, the musical closer - Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours, a 1970 Stevie Wonder hit - left no doubt that Obama is confident he can win.

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