IOWA FALLS, Iowa (AP) – Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Sunday he does not think voters have a litmus test on religion, whether evangelical Christianity or his childhood years in a largely Muslim country.
“If your name is Barack Hussein Obama, you can expect it, some of that. I think the majority of voters know that I’m a member of the United Church of Christ, and that I take my faith seriously,” Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“Ultimately what I think voters will be looking for is not so much a litmus test on faith as an assurance that a candidate has a value system and that is appreciative of the role that religious faith can play in helping shape people’s lives,” he said.
In the interview, Obama also said his race might be a “novelty” this early in the presidential contest, sparred with the prime minister of Australia over Iraq, and said he has a higher burden of proof with voters because of his relative inexperience. Obama formally announced his candidacy in Illinois on Saturday and made a beeline for Iowa, site of the first nominating contest next Jan. 14.
Obama, who was born in Hawaii, lived in mostly Muslim Indonesia with his mother and stepfather from 1967 to 1971. He subsequently returned to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents.
He attends a Chicago church with his wife and two young daughters. The 2008 presidential field also includes Republican Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., an evangelical Christian who converted to Catholicism in recent years.
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Obama’s leading rivals for the Democratic nomination are far better known to voters, the U.S. senator from Illinois said. He was elected in 2004.
“At least two of my fellow candidates have been campaigning nationally for years,” Obama said, referring to New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. “They have an infrastructure and name recognition that are higher than mine so there will probably be a higher burden of proof for me.”
Few minorities reside in early voting Iowa and New Hampshire but Obama said his race – his mother is white, his father is black – will not play a determining role.
“I think that early on it may spark some curiosity or a sense of novelty, but I think very quickly people will be judging me on the merits. Do I have a message that resonates with people’s concerns about health care and education, jobs and terrorism?” he said. “And if they do, then I think race won’t be a major factor.”
At a press conference later in Ames, Obama said he was proud to have opposed the Iraq war from the start while Clinton and others authorized the U.S.-led invasion.
“I don’t think there is a more significant set of decisions than the decision to go to war,” Obama said. “I think the war was a tragic mistake and it never should have been authorized.”
Obama made a habit of stressing his position at every stop, to loud applause. Clinton, meanwhile, ran into some tough questioning while campaigning over the weekend in New Hampshire. One man demanded that she repudiate her 2002 Senate vote to send U.S. troops into battle.
Obama told reporters he thinks his early opposition to the war shows “it was possible to make judgments that this would not work out well” and that it speaks “to the kind of judgment that I will be bringing to the office of president.”
The senator has called for capping the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and then beginning to withdraw them on May 1. He wants a complete pullout of combat brigades by March 31, 2008.
Clinton says she is working to pass legislation capping troop levels and bring to a vote a resolution disapproving of Bush’s planned troop increase.
“I am not clear on how she would proceed at this point to wind down the war in a specific way,” Obama said. “I know that’s she’s stated that she thinks the war should end by the start of the next president’s first term. Beyond that, though, how she wants to accomplish that, I’m not clear on.”
In his speech before thousands at Iowa State University, Obama did not mention Clinton, but he did draw a clear comparison. “We ended up launching a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged,” Obama said to cheers.
In the AP interview, Obama laughed off criticism Saturday from Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who said Obama’s plans for Iraq “encourage those who wanted to completely destabilize and destroy Iraq.”
“It’s flattering that one of George W. Bush’s allies feels obliged to attack me,” Obama said.
Obama said that if Howard did not think enough was being done in Iraq, he should consider sending more Australian troops to the region. Australia has about 1,400 troops in Iraq, mostly in noncombat roles.
The senator dismissed concerns about his own security, but would not answer directly when asked if he had received death threats. The Rev. Jesse Jackson drew early Secret Service protection because of violent threats during his campaigns for president in the 1980s.
“I face the same security issues as anybody,” he told the AP. “We’re comfortable with the steps we have taken.”
Obama campaigned in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo on Saturday after his kickoff announcement in Springfield, Ill. On Sunday, Obama met with party activists at a private home in Iowa Falls and attended the Ames rally.
He won the endorsement of two top state officials – Attorney General Tom Miller and Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald. Miller called Obama “a once in a generation talent.”
On Sunday night, Obama returned home to Chicago, where he was greeted by a roaring crowd of more than 7,000 people.
“I am an imperfect vessel for your hopes and dreams,” Obama told the crowd during a raucous rally at the arena of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
From Washington, Obama came under criticism from a presidential rival, 26-year veteran Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, for his lack of experience.
“I think experience matters to people. The stakes are very, very high right now,” Dodd said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “This is not a time for on-the-job training.”
At the house party in Iowa Falls, Obama said, “I’m going to have to be run through the paces, people are going to have to lift up the hood, kick the tires and be clear that I have a grasp of the issues that are of utmost importance in people’s lives.”
In that vein, Obama said he has quit his cigarette habit and now chews nonprescription Nicorette gum all day.
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.