On the day before West Virginia's primary election, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama called for passage of the new GI bill Monday in Charleston, while taking a jab at U.S. Sen. John McCain - his likely opponent in the fall presidential election - for refusing to support it.
The proposed 21st Century GI Bill would allow soldiers to receive free tuition for college. Obama said it is one of a number of upgrades to GI benefits and healthcare the federal government should provide.
"It would provide every returning veteran with a real chance to afford a college education, and it would not harm retention," Obama told about 1,500 people at the Charleston Civic Center. After that, he stopped to shoot a game of pool with a veteran at a South Charleston pub.
The Illinois Democrat said McCain, whom he added he greatly respects as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, doesn't like the new plan.
"He is one of the few senators of either party who oppose this bill because he thinks it's too generous," Obama said. "I couldn't disagree more.
"At a time when the skyrocketing cost of tuition is pricing thousands of Americans out of a college education, we should be doing everything we can to give the men and women who have risked their lives for this country the chance to pursue the American dream."
Obama faces Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., in today's primary election. Every poll has shown Clinton will win by a large number in the state, and Obama acknowledged that will probably happen.
"I think [former president Bill] Clinton said 80 percent, so we'll take him at his word," he said later Monday.
Hillary Clinton has brought her husband and her daughter Chelsea to campaign for her across West Virginia. They have all encouraged a heavy turnout and big victory to help her stay in the race.
For Obama, Monday marked just his second trip to West Virginia this year and his first since March 20.
"I'm honored that some of you will support me, and I understand that many more here in West Virginia will probably support Senator Clinton," he told the crowd at the Civic Center.
"But when it's over, what will unify us as Democrats - what must unify us as Americans - is an unyielding commitment to the men and women who've served this nation and an unshakable fidelity to the ideals for which they've risked their lives."
A short time later, Obama went to Schultzie's Billiards to shoot a game of pool with veteran Paul Scott of Charleston.
Being interviewed by a crowd of national news media reporters, Scott said he is a supporter of Obama's. "This is cool," he said, after beating the senator in the game.
At one point Obama made a combination shot.
"That's the sign of a misspent youth," he said with a smile. "Obviously, I wasn't doing wholesome things like bowling."
Obama's bowling skills, or lack thereof, were made fun of earlier this year after he tried his hand at that sport.
Slipping inside the bar through a rear entry, Debbie French of Spring Hill was thrilled to see the candidate. An employee of nearby Village Florist, French said she spotted the large bus and police cars on MacCorkle Avenue.
She immediately alerted her colleagues.
"I went in there and said, 'You're not going to believe who's in Schultzie's,'" she said. "Of all places, Schultzie's."
It was a similar story for 16-year-old Danny Rucker. "I saw him before he got out of his SUV," the South Charleston resident said.
He then told his mother, Debbie.
"I want to get the autograph of the next president," she said excitedly.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced Obama to the Civic Center crowd. He called him a "devout Christian who loves America" and said he is "authentic" and "brings people together."
"When I came out for Barack Obama, as did Sharon [Rockefeller], I felt liberated," Rockefeller said. He and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., are the only two of West Virginia's 10 superdelegates to endorse Obama.
Hurricane resident Sue Cater said she had been a Clinton supporter, but Rockefeller's endorsement of Obama convinced her to change her mind.
Rahall tried to fly to several locations in his Southern West Virginia district via helicopter Monday. Instead, his chopper was forced to land on a mountaintop removal mining project. The group hitched a ride back to Charleston with the mining firm's president.
No one at the speech could have been more devoted to Obama's candidacy than Olivia Barker of Charleston and her group. She and nine friends from Unity Church of the Kanawha Valley arrived at the Civic Center at 7 a.m. for the 12:15 p.m. speech.
Their reward was seats in the center front row.
"We're just a bunch of middle-aged women for Obama," Barker said.
Dawn Mason, a former Washington state lawmaker, and her husband Joseph made sure their seats with Nicole Pena of Dallas, Texas, were close to the front. Mason said since Washington's election, she and her husband have worked for Obama's election.
"We came in a couple of weeks ago to work on the campaign," she said.
To contact staff writer Tom Searls, use e-mail or call 348-5198.