Barack Obama, Democratic presidential hopeful, took several questions from those in the audience at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center Thursday evening. About 2,500 attended the event.

Almost as if he were visiting with more than 2,500 longtime friends, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama kept his prepared remarks short and devoted most of his time at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center Thursday evening to candidly answering questions from the audience.

Quite candidly.

For instance, when Nelson Staples of Beckley asked him how he planned to lower the cost of gasoline in the United States, Obama responded with an answer that included investing in alternative fuel research, investing in refinery capacities, having a more sensible policy in the Middle East, strengthening the value of the dollar by improving the economy, charging polluters and creating more fuel-efficient vehicles in the United States.

“But the hard truth is, the only way to, in the long term, reduce gas prices is to reduce demand,” Obama said.

“ ... So, in the meantime, what kind of car do you drive?” he asked Staples.

The laughter from those sitting around the Beckley resident gave him away even before he answered: “An Escalade.”

Obama shrugged his shoulders and widened his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Obama said, “but this is what I’m talking about right here.”

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The issue of efficient energy arose more than once during the 30-minute town hall-style forum as the Illinois senator vowed to help the environment and simultaneously create “millions of new jobs in solar, wind and alternative fuel.”

Chad Foreman of Fayetteville asked Obama how he could help the state strike a balance between the environmental damage caused by the coal and logging industries and the environmental concerns of eco-tourism.

“The truth is, we don’t have perfect energy sources,” Obama said, adding that even though he supports wind energy, he is aware windmills threaten migratory birds. “Every source of energy has some problems. .... There are ways of removing coal that work well ... in a way that does not degrade the environment. But there are other companies tearing stuff up. The key for us has to be to work with those companies that are engaging in the best practices and understanding that over time everybody has an investment in the environment of West Virginia. ... But we have to do it in a way that does not completely eliminate the industry that provides a livelihood for a lot of people. We have to make a transition to clean energies, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Obama has stated that, as president, he intends to put an aggressive renewable energy plan into place that would, by 2020, make 25 percent of the nation’s energy come from alternative sources.

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Coal was also the subject of a question from one of the youngest audience members, a boy from Beckley who identified himself as Aaron. He asked the senator what he would do to keep coal miners, like his father, safe.

“Coal mining remains one of the most dangerous occupations there is,” Obama said. “I want to do everything that’s needed to improve coal mine safety.”

Obama said he planned to meet with Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Robert C. Byrd, both D-W.Va., to make sure the necessary safety measures are in place to ensure the safety of miners.

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Audience questions also addressed the issues of education, veterans and clean water.

One woman, who did not identify herself, said she was an education major at Bluefield State College. She asked what he would do to help students and teachers.

“My student loans will be more than my first-year salary,” she said.

Obama said he wants to give all students a $4,000 tuition credit, “every student, every year,” in exchange for community service. He also said he wants to expand Pell grants because their value has eroded over time.

As to those in the education profession, he said he intends to raise teacher salaries and give them better training and better support for professional development.

“If you devote yourself to teaching, you should be able to devote yourself to a middle-class life,” Obama said.

Another young woman, wearing Army BDUs, asked Obama what he intended to do to help not only veterans, but their spouses. She also said she had heard concerns about his name and faith.

“There are so many rumors flying around,” Obama said. “I’m a Christian. Jesus Christ is my savior. ... I’ve never been of another religion. So when people send around e-mails, all they’re trying to do is the usual political nonsense.”

Then he addressed her question, saying the nation must improve conditions for military families, including housing, day care and benefits, not only for military members but their spouses, widows and widowers.

“But the biggest thing we can do for military families is not have them go on three or four tours of duty,” he added, stating he wants to increase the size of the Army and Marines so the same soldiers aren’t constantly redeployed and National Guard troops aren’t overused.

Obama also said he wants to see a new G.I. Bill for the 21st century.

Another resident, who claimed a stream near his home was polluted by coal mining, asked for help.

“I want a strong enforcement of the Clean Water Act,” Obama said, “and I will make sure that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency believes in the environment and ... enforces the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.”

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A young woman told Obama his ideas sounded wonderful, but she wanted to know how he intended to fund them.

Obama responded by saying he believed the country could save money and begin working its way out of the current $9 trillion debt by ending the war.

“That will save us all money,” he said, adding money would still need to be spent to rebuild the military, replace ruined equipment and care for veterans.

A second source of money, he said, would come from charging polluters for carbons released in the atmosphere.

“That will produce billions we can invest in clean coal technology,” Obama said.

A third source would come from taking back the Bush tax cuts given to the top 1 percent and eliminating loopholes that have created tax havens for corporations, he added.

Obama also assured the audience he wouldn’t begin any new programs by borrowing.

“I’m not going to be taking out a credit card from the bank of China, which is what we’ve been doing,” he said.

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Obama continued answering questions even after the forum closed as he walked through a crowd of people, shaking their hands and speaking with them. Before he left the microphone, he stated:

“I will always tell you what I think. I will always tell you where I stand. I will be honest with you about the challenges we face as a country. ... I will listen to you even when we disagree. ... I will wake up every single day when I’m president of the United States, thinking about how to make your lives a little bit better. ... I know what it’s like to be raised by a single mother, to get food stamps, to have a grandfather to be able to fight in a war and create a good life for his wife and himself because of the G.I. Bill. ... I will fight for you if you’re willing to stand up for me.”

— E-mail: bnaudrey@register-herald.com

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