Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Thursday told a cheering Atlanta crowd that he walked away from a U.S. Senate vote to condemn the MoveOn.org newspaper ad that attacked Gen. David Petraeus, declaring the debate was an unnecessary waste of time.
The newspaper ad, published in the New York Times, referred to Petraeus as "General Betray Us." The Senate on Thursday approved the Republican-sponsored resolution, 72 to 25.
"I happen to believe that General Petraeus has served this country honorably. And I think it probably was a distraction to try to attack him as opposed to [President] George Bush's policies," Obama said.
But the Illinois senator said he couldn't tolerate "the notion that at a time when we know young men and women are dying, and veterans are not being served right here at home.... We're wasting time debating about a newspaper ad."
"I did not vote on that bill. This is the kind of game plan that the American people are tired of," Obama said.
The candidate made his comments at a $25-a-head event at the Georgia World Congress Center that organizers said drew 2,200 supporters. A $1,000-per-person, private event followed.
Also at the public rally, Obama twice made reference to Jena, La., where thousands of demonstrators gathered Thursday in support of six black teenagers initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate.
Obama declared he was "puzzled at how on earth a schoolyard fight" could cause prosecutors to level murder charges.
"It's not to excuse anybody, it's not to excuse young men that are in a fight, or that they assaulted another young man. We understand that violence is not the answer to any problem. What people are asking for is simply that the system of justice is fair," Obama said.
Earlier this week, a South Carolina newspaper quoted the Rev. Jesse Jackson as saying that Obama was "acting like he's white" when he failed to speak out forcefully about incident in Jena. Jackson later said he did not remember making the comment.
During Obama's event, NBA hall of famer Dominique Wilkins officially welcomed the multi-racial audience, which was dominated by young people. The Rev. Joe Lowery, 82, the civil rights leader, and R&B artist Usher, 28, also spoke and served as generational bookends.
Campaign organizers supplemented the low-dollar event with high-dollar souvenirs. Water bottles — empty — sold for $12. Karen Steinberg of Decatur and her kids, Stacy, 20, and Eric, 17, shelled out $79 for three T-shirts, a handful of bumper stickers, two signs and some buttons.
"But it's a contribution," Steinberg explained.
Obama still enjoys a rock-star status among many who attended — and raised their cellphones to snap photos as soon as he stepped on-stage.
"He's a man of change, excitement. He's shown America if you make the right choices, you can be president," said Mary Soley of Atlanta.
In April, Obama drew an estimated 20,000 people when he spoke outdoors on the Georgia Tech campus. The Thursday event was significantly smaller, but had the same purpose. The campaign wants to build a network of supporters who can act as a turn-out machine during the presidential primaries — not just in Georgia on Feb. 5, but in neighboring South Carolina on Jan. 29.
"To make Feb. 5 work for us in Georgia, we have to do well in South Carolina," Temo Figueroa, national field director for the Obama campaign, told the crowd. He urged them to join a caravan of buses headed from four MARTA stations into South Carolina for a door-knocking expedition on Sept. 29.