Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, buoyed by new polls and what his campaign sees as growing momentum, highlighted his claim as the generational "change candidate" of the 2008 presidential race on Wednesday by telling a youthful crowd at Google Inc. that " if I waited 10 years (to run), I'd still be younger than most of the other candidates."
"So much is at stake that running for president can't be about just ambition this time," he told an audience of about 1,000 packed into an auditorium at Google's Mountain View campus.
"We have seen a gridlock where 45 percent of the country is on one side, 45 percent of the country is on the other ... (and) political contests just become beating down the other side and eking out a victory. And you can't govern," said the 46-year-old first-term senator.
Obama has criticized Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York as a member of the Washington establishment that has helped create political stalemate on issues from immigration to health care. He continued that theme Wednesday without naming her, saying, "Washington has been governed by ... who's got the most juice, who's got the most clout - and that has to change."
Obama is the latest 2008 presidential candidate to use Google as a backdrop for a high-tech town hall. Unlike the traditional, more predictable such gatherings in the small, early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire, candidates at Google face a young crowd armed with detailed, sometimes quirky questions.
Democrats Clinton, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Republicans Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Texas Rep. Ron Paul visited Google earlier this year, though Obama's crowd was the largest and most vocally supportive to date.
Obama used his Silicon Valley visit Wednesday - presided over by Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt with the company's founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page in the audience - to promote his five-point "innovation agenda." He also appeared Wednesday night at a rally at San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.
In little more than 24 hours in the Bay Area, the Illinois senator also hit four major fundraisers: two Tuesday events in San Francisco, a Wednesday morning stop in Marin County, and - prior to his Civic Center rally - a party for 300 supporters, most of whom donated the maximum $2,300 to the primary and general election campaign, in the Atherton home of former state Controller Steve Westly, a high-tech investor and major Obama fundraiser.
Obama answered questions at Google about the war in Iraq and his policy views toward Iran, and addressed what he termed key differences between himself and his Democratic rivals.
While he said he appreciated President Bill Clinton's ultimately unsuccessful effort at health care reform in 1993, Obama said his work on the issue will be open rather than developed behind closed doors. He pledged to have "a big table" with consumers, unions, health care providers and pharmaceutical firms weighing in to find solutions to the issues of rising health care costs and growing numbers of uninsured.
The senator said his effort to reach a health care reform plan would be so open "it will all be on C-SPAN." And if attack ads from opponents start, as they did during Clinton's failed effort, "I'll send out something on YouTube," he said to cheers from the crowd at Google, which owns YouTube. "And (I'll) let them know what the facts are."
Making deft use of a question about what he has learned from the political successes of former President Clinton, who is tremendously popular among Democrats, Obama appeared to use the moment to dig, however gently, at the style of the former first lady.
"One of the things Bill Clinton did was to recognize the moment," he said. "He came in and he said, 'You know what, I'm a different kind of Democrat and I'm willing to do things in new ways.' "
Now, "we are in this defining moment and we can't keep doing the same things that we have been doing, but haven't been working," he said. "Democrats lose when they are not clear about what they stand for. Democrats lose when they are attacked, and - because they don't know where they stand - they end up getting defensive instead of going on the offensive."
Obama campaign insiders said Wednesday that recent polls and events in the campaign such as the senator's well-received speech last weekend in Iowa have created a shift that has electrified his supporters - and boosted his fundraising with everyone pointing toward the opening contest of the nominating campaign Jan. 3 in Iowa.
"The rock star stuff is back," said Obama's California campaign director Mitchell Schwartz. "We have the wind at our back ... and it's a different ballgame."
"It was hard to raise money a month ago," said Westly, noting that the media was talking up Hillary Clinton's "inevitability" and the New York senator appeared to be making a flawless run toward the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
But after Clinton stumbled recently in a debate over the issue of illegal immigration, and Obama's speech at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa, "it's been the easiest thing I've ever raised money for," Westly said.
Obama, Clinton and Edwards are tightly bunched in public opinion polls of Iowa Democrats and Obama has almost halved Clinton's once 20-point lead in polls of expected primary voters in New Hampshire, the second major contest.
Westly said Clinton has increasingly appeared "off her balance," while Edwards has gone on a sharp attack and Obama has remained "the statesman." Just as voters are beginning to take a look at the White House race in earnest, they are seeing Obama as "the candidate of change," he said
Obama's decision, however, to tout his "innovation agenda" at Google on Wednesday repeated many of the technology friendly proposals made earlier by the other Democratic candidates.
Clinton, appearing before the Silicon Valley Leadership Group in June, also proposed an "innovation agenda" including a $50 billion strategic energy fund to develop research on global warming - a proposal similar to Obama's call for $50 billion in federal funds for a "clean technology" venture capital fund.
Edwards, too, had used events in Silicon Valley to call for increasing the number of H-1B visas for highly trained technical foreign workers, more government support of broadband access and extension of research and development tax credits.
On Wednesday, Obama proposed creating a national "chief technology officer" position charged with making government more transparent and accessible to citizens on the Internet. The senator also proposed a "Google for Government" effort which he said would provide more Web accessibility to government records, and called for live feeds and Webcasts of government meetings and public commentary on its work via the Internet.
That proposal isn't groundbreaking in government: For example, California's Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has offered live feeds and Webcasts of many of his events for years.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama on Wednesday presented himself as something of a start-up who has some similarities to one of the world's best-known technology companies.
Saying he believes, like Google Inc., that change comes from the "bottom up," the Illinois Democrat outlined an ambitious innovation plan that would bring greater access for all to government information and technology.
"We need to make sure that the next success story—the next Google—happens here in America," he told hundreds of employees at Google's headquarters. "The Google story is about what can be achieved when we cultivate new ideas and keep the playing field level for new businesses."
Obama was the latest presidential candidate to visit the search giant's sprawling glass-and-steel headquarters, a place that has exhibited staggering growth to become the Internet's global icon in less than a decade.
Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas have all made visits.
In keeping with Goggle's zeal to put all things on the Internet, the town hall style meetings with the candidates, open to all employees, are later posted on Google-owned YouTube.com.
The series of candidate visits reflect an increasing involvement in politics by Google, which is trying to play a role in everything from technology issues to environmental matters.
During his visit, Obama called for a greater commitment to "science and innovation" and said the next president will face diplomatic challenges unmatched since World War II.
He sold himself to the technology employees by pointing out the online success he has had with his campaign, including hundreds of thousands of online donations and thousands of online, grassroots groups.
Obama, who visited the company in 2004 as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, said he remembered seeing a computer display that shows where Internet queries are coming from.
"What struck me wasn't the light on that globe," he said. "It was the darkness: most of Africa, chunks of Asia, even parts of the United States."
Obama used a video featuring himself talking about the Chicago Bears and a joke about the company's exceptionally casual dress code as icebreakers.
He pledged to appoint the nation's first "Chief Technology Officer" to ensure more government documents and meetings are available online, as he praised Google's alternative energy efforts.
As is customary for most politicians visiting Google, Obama reaffirmed his support for so-called Net neutrality, a policy that prevents companies that provide the data lines that form the Internet from charging companies like Google extra for faster data handling.
After his speech, Obama and Google CEO Eric Schmidt sat in red leather chairs as the executive and employees asked questions.
One employee asked Obama what political lessons he has learned from the political success of former President Bill Clinton and the political failures of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
"There is a lot to learn from Bill Clinton. One of the things Clinton did I think was recognize the moment," Obama said. "The Democrats had not rung out the excesses of the 60s and early 70s...He came in and said, you know what, 'I'm a different kind of Democrat' ... and that was a powerful message."
Obama said Democrats lose when they are "not clear about what they stand for...and end up getting defensive, instead of going on the offensive."
Another employee asked him what he should tell his friends when he is told Obama lacks enough experience to be president.
"Sergey and Larry didn't have a lot of experience starting a Fortune 100 company," Obama responded, referring to Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
Obama received a standing ovation from the employees, but was stumped by a highly complex mathematical problem Schmidt posed.
Besides visiting Google, Obama also attended several fundraisers in the Bay area, including an evening rally in San Francisco expected to draw thousands.