GRAND FORKS, N.D. - For a few hours Friday, North Dakota was the center of all the controversies over Bosnian snipers, outspoken clergymen, 3 a.m. phone calls and superdelegates.

 

And North Dakota was grateful for it.

In a rare event, Democratic presidential contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton converged on Grand Forks within hours of each other, signaling the intensity of the national contest and giving North Dakotans, who frequently feel left out of national debates, a welcome sense of civic pride.

Obama, keynote speaker at the state Democratic Party's convention, delivered a 35-minute speech laced with populist themes to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 19,000. He decried last month's loss of 80,000 jobs nationally and a Washington dominated by special interest groups. The Illinois senator, who won the state's Democratic caucuses in February, also acknowledged the North Dakota audience:

"Some people think it's just a flyover state, that caucus states really aren't fair. I tell you what, we didn't fly over North Dakota, we landed. We didn't write off North Dakota; we competed in this caucus and we will keep competing all the way until November."

Obama noted the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, reflecting on what the civil rights leader might have thought about the possibility of the nation's first black president.

"Forty years later, he would look out over this audience, he would look at me standing here; he would look at the progress that has been made in America and he would say, 'You see, an arc is bending towards justice.' But he would also remind us that arc doesn't bend on its own. It bends because each of us is willing to put our hand on that arc and bend it in the direction of justice."

In the caucuses, Obama won eight delegates to Clinton's five, but Democrats will decide this weekend which people are sent as delegates to the national convention, creating the chance for last-minute maneuvering by the campaigns to pick up an extra delegate or two.

'Rocky' and hockey

About a quarter of the crowd had left before Clinton arrived to take the stage at 8:40 p.m. to the theme song of "Rocky." She received a hockey stick from the University of North Dakota hockey team, as did Obama.

"The Fighting Sioux, the little I know about them, they never give up. It is exciting to be a North Dakota Democrat right now," she told the crowd.

Recalling the devastating floods that hit Grand Forks in 1997, Clinton mentioned the work of her husband, Bill, who came to Grand Forks and pledged federal support to rebuild. "You had a partner in the White House. You had a president who put your families first, you had a FEMA director who actually knew something about natural disasters," she said.

During a speech that lasted 50 minutes, Clinton criticized the Bush administration for putting "corporate special interests first and hard working families last," through tax cuts for billionaires and no-bid contracts.

She also advocated universal health care equal to those offered to members of Congress and pledged to increase the use of renewable energy that she said will help U.S. farmers and reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Clinton gave no indication she was considering suggestions that she abandon her campaign as she trails Obama in the overall delegate count. "I know what's it like to stumble. I know what its like to get knocked down, But I don't stay down," she said.

Happy to have them

Obama was invited to the convention by North Dakota U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan. Clinton was a relatively late addition, with news of her visit coming Monday. Indeed, events overtook the convention so quickly that the official guide was printed before her announcement, leaving her without a mention, while a smiling Obama was displayed prominently.

Democratic elected officials in the state were enthusiastic about Clinton's appearance, dismissing suggestions that the New York senator was trying to snatch a share of the spotlight or pledged delegates from Obama.

Dorgan said the one-two combination would be one of the greatest political events in the state since President John Kennedy visited Grand Forks in 1963.

U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., called Clinton's visit "icing on the cake."

Of course, the two political heavyweights weren't the only attraction in town, what with the World Curling Championships scheduled to begin on Saturday.

Waiting for the candidates

Well before the candidates arrived, several thousand people waited in line to hear the speeches, some braving the minutiae of standing committee reports and platform resolutions before the candidates' scheduled arrival.

"I've seen some pretty excited crowds, and I'm pretty sure they are here to hear about Jasper Schneider, North Dakota's next insurance commissioner," joked one nominating speaker. Polite applause greeted Schneider as he made his way to the podium as his party's nominee.

The day attracted visitors both partisan and nonaligned. Patty Knutson, of Fargo, for instance, isn't inclined to support either of the Democrats. But she was on a mission: to see potential presidents.

She's seen every president in person since Harry Truman, except for Bill Clinton. While George W. Bush was a candidate, she was in a room with him with about 50 other people. The next time she saw him she was in an arena with 2,600 people.

"This is really no-man's land, so you can see them when they aren't so big," said Knutson, who was firmly planted in her seat at the Alerus Center more than four hours before Obama was scheduled to speak.

"I guess you could call me a kind of presidential groupie. But I'm no idiot, I have a good idea about the issues."

For 22-year-old Jill Porter, it was worth the 10-hour drive from college in Lawrence, Kan., for the chance to hear Clinton and Obama. She grew up within blocks of the Alerus Center and will return to North Dakota to attend medical school. She voted for John Kerry in 2004 but admits she was not impressed. This time around, she feels the mood of the country is embracing change.

"This is good that both candidates recognize the value of the little people in the little towns," said Porter, wearing an Obama badge. "It says something about the candidates, that there is a feeling of nationalism, that we are all in it together. It's not just people with lots of money in big cities that matter."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636