GREAT FALLS - With the long Democratic presidential primary race finally nearing an end, Barack Obama put in a last-minute pitch Friday night for Montanans' votes.
"I'm here to report after traveling 15 months, after visiting 48 states, after speaking to hundreds of thousands of people and shaking hundreds of thousands of hands and kissing hundreds of thousands babies, I am here to report my bet has paid off, because all across the country, the American people have said they are ready for change," Obama said.
"And Montana, it is your turn on Tuesday to stand up."
The 2,200 people attending the event in the half-empty Four Seasons Arena erupted in applause.
Montana and South Dakota have the nation's final presidential primaries on Tuesday. At stake in Montana are 17 unpledged delegates and the five of the state's eight superdelegates who have not yet committed. Montana's other three superdelegates have committed to Obama.
Obama said he believes he will have the nomination sewn up next week, but said that's just the start of another long campaign to win the presidency in November.
It was Obama's sixth stop in Montana the past two months. He previously spoke in Missoula, Butte, Billings, the Crow Indian Reservation and Bozeman. His campaign announced Friday night that his wife, Michelle Obama, will stump for him in the Billings area Monday.
His rival, Hillary Clinton, has spoken in several Montana cities and on the Flathead Indian Reservation, while her husband, former President Bill Clinton, a frequent Montana visitor this spring, is returning to Montana for more campaign speeches on Sunday. Their daughter, Chelsea Clinton, also campaigned on her mother's behalf in Montana this week.
Obama paid tribute to Hillary Clinton, calling her an "outstanding public servant" who has run "a magnificent campaign." He expressed confidence that backers of both candidates would unite during the general election.
Looking tired after the long campaign, Obama delivered an abbreviated, 30-minute version of his stump speech in Great Falls. He told some soon-to-be graduates of C.M. Russell High School, clad in green graduation gowns, that he would try to speak fast so they could make it to their ceremony on time later Friday night.
The Illinois senator hit on familiar themes and drew loud applause when he vowed not to let special-interest groups influence federal policy as has occurred during the Bush administration.
"We have an opportunity to bring to an end the policies that led to the mismanagement of (Hurricane) Katrina and warrantless wiretaps, and an economy that's only working for the wealthy, and a health care system that only works for the healthy," Obama said.
While President Bush's name won't be on the ballot, Obama said Americans must make sure they don't vote his policies back in with presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.
"John McCain is running for George Bush's third term," Obama said.
He praised McCain's record of service to the United States and called him a genuine war hero who deserves Americans' respect.
"But when John McCain says he's looked at the George Bush economic record and said we've made great progress, I'm thinking he hasn't been talking to the 260,000 people who lost their jobs since the beginning of this year, he's not talking to folks who can't pay their bills at the end of the month because their health insurance premiums have gone up and up and up. He's not talking to folks trying to fill up a gas tank, just to get to a job.
"He's not talking to folks out in Indian Country on the reservations who haven't seen any economic development all during George Bush's tenure. So you haven't seen great progress. I haven't seen great progress. I don't know what John McCain's looking at, but we can't afford seven more years or eight more years of this great progress that he's talking about."
To help the economically battered middle- and lower-income classes, Obama pledged a $1,000 tax break to help them pay for the escalating costs of gasoline, groceries and other necessities.
Obama decried the special interests that he said are writing public policy on health care, energy and other areas in the Bush White House.
"We've got to change how Washington works," Obama said. "It starts by pushing back against the special interests that dominate Washington."
To help Americans attend college, Obama called for a $4,000-a-year tuition credit for every year a student commits to work in national service.
The Great Falls crowd applauded when he called for ending the war in Iraq and stepping up the fight in Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden and other terrorists. Malmstrom Air Force Base is located in Great Falls.
Afterward, 18-year-old Jordyn Rogers of Cascade said in an interview that Obama won her support with the tuition tax credit proposal. She said she went into the speech undecided.
"I thought it was really great," she said, adding that the proposal would help her achieve her dream of working in the health care field after studying radiology.
John Stephenson-Love, 73, a Great Falls attorney, said Obama gave "a great speech."
"I was touched by the story about his life," Stephenson said.
Obama told how his father left when he was 2 and he was raised by a single mother in Kansas. She was helped by her parents, with her father, a World War II veteran, assisted by programs like the GI Bill that helped him attend college, and by and low-interest housing loans to veterans.
Mary Ghee, 71, of Great Falls, was ecstatic after the speech.
"I think he's great," she said. "I think he's gonna win."