COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama promised on Wednesday to create new opportunities for national service that would give Americans a chance to fight growing challenges on issues like poverty, climate change and education.
On a trip to Colorado, which Obama hopes to turn into an election battleground in his November White House race with Republican John McCain, Obama said Americans were ready to answer a new call for national service.
"I won't just ask for your vote as a candidate -- I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States," Obama said.
"This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program -- this will be a central cause of my presidency," he said. "We will ask Americans to serve. We will create new opportunities for Americans to serve. And we will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges."
Obama, an Illinois senator, touted a package of proposals he first offered in December that would expand AmeriCorps, the domestic service agency, and double the size of the Peace Corps.
He also would offer more service opportunities to retirees and set goals for middle- and high-school students to serve 50 hours a year of public service, and for college students to serve 100 hours a year.
The speech was part of a week-long campaign focus for Obama on values and patriotism in the run-up to the Independence Day holiday on July 4.
Obama, who would be the first black president, has been dogged by Internet speculation about his patriotism and criticism from Republicans about his liberal voting record.
"Loving your country shouldn't just mean watching fireworks on the 4th of July," he said. "Loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it. If you do, your life will be richer, and our country will be stronger."
Colorado Springs is in a conservative region of the state that is home to a military base, the U.S. Air Force Academy and the religious conservative group Focus on the Family.
Obama, who was scheduled to meet in the afternoon with military officials, renewed his call for bigger and stronger U.S. forces.
But the future of the United States does not just depend on the military, he said, "It also depends on the teacher in East L.A., the nurse in Appalachia, the after-school worker in New Orleans, the Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and the Foreign Service officer in Indonesia."
He criticized President George W. Bush for not taking advantage of a national desire to serve others shown by Americans after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Instead of a call to service, we were asked to go shopping," Obama said. "Instead of a call for shared sacrifice, we gave tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans in a time of war for the very first time in our history."
Obama cited his decision to become a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago after college as the kind of service that was beneficial to the community and satisfying.
"We need your service, right now, at this moment -- our moment -- in history," he said.
(For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/ )