Steve Terrell--The Santa Fe New Mexican
Los Alamos National Laboratory would remain a weapons-research facility under a Barack Obama administration, Obama said Monday. But if he's elected, LANL also would be at the forefront of research for technology to aide in nuclear nonproliferation.
Obama, who was in Las Cruces for a Memorial Day ceremony, was asked in a phone interview whether he would keep LANL as a weapons research facility. "Absolutely," he replied.
"Los Alamos has been one of our premier research facilities, and we need to do more research in this area, in part because we've got to deal with the critical issues of nonproliferation," the Democratic contender said.
Obama said he would put a priority on developing technology to detect "loose," unaccounted-for nuclear material. He also said there needs to be a technology to ensure nuclear materials designed for civilian purposes in countries that don't currently have nuclear weapons are not turned into bombs.
"There's a whole host of areas that involve significant research and development, and Los Alamos needs to be at the forefront of that," Obama said.
Nancy Ambrosiano, a LANL spokeswoman, said Monday that the lab has a Nuclear Nonproliferation Division that's more than a decade old and is in fact working on some of the projects Obama advocates.
Democrats in recent years have advocated making nonproliferation research a higher priority.
The candidate spoke to a group of veterans and their families in Las Cruces at an event that was closed to the public but open to reporters.
He said the government should give the same priority to building a 21st century veterans administration that it does to building a 21st century military. The country should have "zero tolerance for veterans sleeping on our streets," Obama said. He also said protesting at military funerals should be banned. This was in a reference to a rabidly anti-gay church in Kansas that has become infamous for protesting at the funerals of those who died in Iraq, claiming their deaths are God's punishment for allowing homosexuality.
Obama in the interview had praise for Gov. Bill Richardson, who, several weeks after folding his own presidential campaign, endorsed Obama's White House bid. "I think Bill Richardson's one of the best public servants we have in American life."
Asked whether Richardson was on his short list for vice president or another top-level job in an Obama administration, the senator from Illinois replied, "I am not discussing vice presidential choices at this point because I haven't locked down the nomination yet. But I think Bill Richardson would be on anybody's short list for top assignments in the federal government. Now, he may decide he prefers being governor of the state of New Mexico. He loves this state and he loves the people. But he's an outstanding public servant and I'm very proud to have his support."
Recently Richardson, appearing on Fox News, was asked about Obama's statements he would meet with governments not friendly with the U.S.. Richardson pointed out he's met face to face with Fidel Castro and other "bad guys."
"I think you don't talk to (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad. You talk to some of the moderate (Iranian) clerics," Richardson said. The Republican National Committee seized on that statement, implying Richardson was contradicting Obama.
"The Republicans are scrambling to distort my position on this issue," Obama said Monday. "I've been very clear that you meet with our enemies and not just our friends. That's the essence of diplomacy. I've said that with appropriate preparation I would meet with leaders of adversarial countries. I think Bill Richardson's point is a point I've made repeatedly-- that Ahmadinejad isn't the most powerful person in Iran and might not be the person with whom you end up cutting a deal. In fact, we don't even know what his position's going to be because they've got elections coming up in 2009 and his party was weakened in the last legislative elections.
"You know, the Republicans want to engage in fear mongering, and Ahmadinejad's such an unattractive, incendiary figure, they want to prop him up as an example of people they'd refuse to meet with," Obama said. "But, of course, they've refused to meet with more moderate clerics in Iran and lower levels as well. And that policy has failed. It's strengthened Iran. Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons. They're undaunted by the bluster coming from this administration, and I believe that's a policy that both Bill Richardson and myself believe that we need to change."
So why is Obama -- who still faces primary contests with U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton in Puerto Rico, South Dakota and Montana -- spending Memorial Day in New Mexico? Don't other states have veterans?
"Well New Mexico obviously has some just outstanding veterans that I wanted to make sure to honor," Obama said.
But perhaps realizing this might sound like pandering, he quickly added: "And we're going to be competing very hard here in New Mexico in the general election.
"I only had the opportunity to campaign during the primary, the caucus, because it was during Feb. 5, when there were 23 contests. We wanted to make sure we get back here and talk to the voters and give them the attention they deserve."
Obama lost the state's Democratic caucus to Clinton by a narrow margin. "Oh yeah, it was painful," he said.
What will he do to win over Hispanic voters, who tended to support Clinton in the primaries?
"The truth is we did very well with Hispanics here in New Mexico," he said. "Senator Clinton edged us out, but ... I know we got a higher percent of Hispanics here than just about anywhere. We're going to keep making sure that the Hispanic electorate here is familiar with my track record because when they are, we do very well. ... But obviously they were more familiar with Senator Clinton. As they become more familiar with me, the better we do."