Obama in Tampa: The president is in the building

Shaking hands on his way in with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and giving a big shout-out to "Mayor Pam Iori-o!" (with the emphasis on the "o"), President Barack Obama entered the Bob Martinez Sports Center at UT to a huge cheering crowd estimated to be about 3,000 strong. The president began by acknowledging the Democratic luminaries (and more pertinently) candidates in the room, including  CFO Alex Sink;  Rep. Kathy Castor (a key proponent of the high-speed rail project Obama is here to promote);  everyone's favorite Angry Democrat, Rep. Alan Grayson; and Senate candidate Rep. Kendrick Meek. The biggest applause after Obama? A close tie between UT president Ronald Vaughn, local FEMA personnel returned from helping victims of the Haiti earthquake and former Bucs Coach Tony Dungy, whose Super Bowl advice Obama recommended. Someone not singled out (yet) by the president, but mentioned by ABC ActionNews anchor Brendan McLaughlin: Ed Turanchik, who has spearheaded the campaign for high-speed rail in Florida, and for whom this event is a major milestone. McLaughlin called him the event's " father of the bride."

1:56: First question from a USF student who worked on Obama's campaign: Why have you not condemned Israel's treatment of Palestine? Obama: "Israel is one of our strongest allies… shares links with us in all sorts of ways… I will never waver from assuring Israel's security. I make no apologies for that." But, he went on, we have to pay attention to the plight of the Palestinians. We're seeking a two-state solution, and both sides are going to have to make compromises.

2:01: Bill Segal, Orange County Commissioner: Re high-speed rail, how are we going to decide who gets what? Obama: We've already got "a couple of trillion dollars" worth of  infrastructure repair to do in systems that already exist —  and decisions for future will be based on which engineering plans work best. We picked the best plans, said Obama — and one of them was Orlando-Tampa. (Obama gave veteran train-commuter Joe Biden the podium to make that announcement.)

2:11: Roshonda from Kissimmee - "I wrote a poem for you and put it on a nice background." My brother's 27 and he has 33 felonies, drug felonies - how do we get men like him jobs to help their self-esteem, some kind of training so they don't have to go out and sell drugs? Obama: Talks about seeing similar problems all over America, in small towns as well as big cities. Give kids a healthy start. "The single best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education."  But, he added, "33 felonies is a lot... that's a long rap sheet," and not exactly a passport to employment. He talked up potential benefits of ex-offenders' programs.

2:18 Steve Gordon from Clearwater, runs small business making water-saving device. "We are tired of dealing with banks. I know you care, I know you're trying," but why lend to banks to help small businesses, why not make grants directly to small businesses? Obama: Even Small Business Administration loans work directly with local banks, community banks - SBA doesn't have infrastructure to process loans to small businesses directly. We'd need to create a massive business bureaucracy to make that happen. Instead, we're using money repaid from the bank bailout to encourage small banks to make loans to you.

2:24: My 15 year old son Zack Cartwright wanted me to tell you he's a big fan. Why tax breaks to CitiGroup, none for middle class taking penalties for hardship withdrawals from 401k accounts? Obama: "This is something I personally experienced." Talks about taking 10 percent penalty for withdrawing 401k funds when he was a lawyer. "You're raising a legitimate point." The laws against early withdrawal exist for a reason, but maybe we should look at narrow categories of emergencies in which penalty wouldn't be applied.

2:28: "Everyone's pointing at this guy, so I'll call on him." Hector from UT! (The star of Amanda Abadi's award-winning College Guide video for Creative Loafing) What are you doing now to ensure  homosexuals can be treated as equals? Obama: Talks about recognizing rights of same-sex couples to hospital visits, pension benefits for surviving partners - "I think it's the right thing to do."  But he didn't talk about Don't Ask Don't Tell or gay marriage, even though Hector mentioned both of those issues in his question.

More to come from Mitch Perry, who is on the scene.

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