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Obama tries to take up Edwards mantle

From NBC/NJ's Aswini Anburajan
LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- Forget Camelot. The latest mantle that Obama is trying to claim as his own is former Sen. John Edwards' who left the race yesterday with a request to the two remaining candidates for the Democratic nomination to make poverty an issue in their campaigns.

Obama obliged, sounding positively Edwards-esque in a town hall at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, told the crowd that the system wasn't "designed for us."

"Too many people today feel like the system is not designed for people like us.  They feel like the education system isn't designed for people like us, and the job market isn't designed for people like us," identifying himself with the predominantly Latino and African-American crowd and making a clear acknowledgment of racial disparities obtaining mortgages, health care and economic opportunities in the United States. 

It was a statement that went further on race and class than Obama usually gives in stump speeches. Even in South Carolina and Nevada, Obama rarely dwelled too much on the idea of institutional racial disparities or identified himself with a minority crowd in such a clear and distinct way.

He added: "Well let me tell you something, this is our country. America should be designed for people like us. That's why I'm running for President of the United States for all people -- Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight  -- all people," he said.

The comments followed a five-minute introduction to Obama's speech where he dwelled on the importance of government providing opportunity for Americans of all stripes and told the crowd that his campaign was about trying "to help people up the ladder of economic success."

And if anyone was unclear about the intention of his message, Obama made a direct link to John Edwards and the issue of poverty.

"This is our country. That's why we have to address the issue of poverty. I congratulate John Edwards for his outstanding race and the way in which he identified the forgotten America," he said.

And then positioned himself as a natural candidate to pick up where Edwards left off: "That forgotten American America I worked in as a community organizer, that forgotten America I represented as a civil rights attorney, that forgotten America I fought for as a state legislature," he added.

Approximately 1,600 people came to see Obama at the town hall and the candidate spoke for over an hour and a half taking nearly a dozen questions that ranged from economic opportunity to Darfur to racial profiling. 

Obama's work on immigration reform, absent in his stump speeches before, played front and center in his speech today as it did in Phoenix yesterday, and in a move that looked as if he was already starting to run against the Republican frontrunner he mentioned John McCain's work on immigration reform as well.

"That is what I fought with Ted Kennedy and I fought alongside John McCain to work on comprehensive immigration reform."

He told the crowd that he had worked to pass a bill that wasn't popular because he believed that all Americans had a right to be here, and speak spoke of John Edwards, praising his work on poverty and saying that it was critical to introduce it.

And in a clear appeal to Hispanic voters Obama told voters, "You need to learn English. Of course, I need to learn Spanish so we can teach other," he said to loud applause.

The diverse crowd in a neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles largely made up of African Americans and Latinos saw a marked change in tone from Obama when he was talking about racial and immigration issues.  Though his positions are the same, the way he talked about immigration and racial profiling for example publicly acknowledged the racial subtext to much of what he mentioned.

For example, on immigration Obama said the debate was framed in a way to only talk about people from "south of the border" but not from "Poland or Ireland"

"I think it's very important we have an intelligent debate about immigration that is not tinged with our attitudes of what people should look like who come here. Cause my attitude everybody should come here.  My father when he came here, he didn't look like you know -- he didn't look like he steppe doff the Mayflower," he said and jokingly added that not everybody who came into Ellis Island had their papers in order.

Congressman Xavier Becerra and Maria Elena Durazo were part of a host of Latino politicians and labor leaders who introduced Obama today. Becerra told the crowd that this was the first time in "40 years since Robert F. Kennedy" that their vote really mattered in a presidential election.