Standing in front of four American flags, Sen. Barack Obama delivered a speech in the aptly named town of Independence, Mo., today in an attempt to reassure voters about his patriotism.
"At certain times over the last 16 months, I have found, for the first time, my patriotism challenged -- at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears about who I am and what I stand for," Obama told a crowd of about 1,000 at the Harry Truman Center in Missouri.
Wearing an American flag pin on the lapel of his suit, Obama said: "I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign. And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine."
Obama has faced questions about his patriotism early on in the Democratic primaries for not wearing an American flag pin. Obama also came under fire last September for not holding his hand over his heart while singing the Star Spangled Banner at the Harkin Steak Fry in Iowa.
The Illinois Senator has recently taken to wearing an American flag pin on his lapel regularly. Today, Obama said the "question of who is -- or is not -- a patriot all too often poisons our political debates."
"I have come to know this from my own experience on the campaign trail," Obama said. "Throughout my life, I have always taken my deep and abiding love for this country as a given. It was how I was raised; it is what propelled me into public service; it is why I am running for president."
Flag Pin Controversy
Obama sparked a mini-controversy early in the campaign in October, 2007, when a reporter for an ABC affiliate asked Obama why he wasn't wearing a flag pin, which many other politicians wear.
"You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin," Obama told the reporter at the time. "Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we're talking about the Iraq War, that became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security. I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest.
Obama's answer met with outrage on right-wing radio talk shows and on cable news shows.
"Why do we wear pins?" host Sean Hannity asked his talk show audience at the time. "Because our country is under attack."
Obama: Patriotism Used as Political Sword
Today, Obama said "the use of patriotism as a political sword or a political shield is as old as the Republic," citing Thomas Jefferson who was accused by the Federalists of selling out to the French.
"For me, as for most Americans, patriotism starts as a gut instinct, a loyalty and love for country rooted in my earliest memories," he said.
"As I got older, that gut instinct -- that America is the greatest country on earth -- would survive my growing awareness of our nation's imperfections: it's ongoing racial strife; the perversion of our political system laid bare during the Watergate hearings; the wrenching poverty of the Mississippi Delta and the hills of Appalachia," he said, "Not only because, in my mind, the joys of American life and culture, its vitality, its variety and its freedom, always outweighed its imperfections but because I learned that what makes America great has never been its perfection but the belief that it can be made better."
After talking about how war in Iraq and Afghanistan has been used as a symbol of American patriotism, Obama said, " no party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism," he said. "The young soldier who first spoke about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib – he is a patriot."
Obama Touts McCain's Military Service
The presumptive Democratic nominee said he believes patriotism involves the willingness to sacrifice, and he touted the military service of his GOP rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
"For those who have fought under the flag of this nation -- for the young veterans I meet when I visit Walter Reed; for those like John McCain who have endured physical torment in service to our country -- no further proof of such sacrifice is necessary," he said, "And let me also add that no one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides."
That was an indirect reference to a comment made by retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, who may have talked himself off the vice-presidential list by calling into question the value of Arizona Sen. John McCain's military record on Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."
"He hasn't held executive responsibility. That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded -- that wasn't a wartime squadron," said Clark, who did command NATO allied forces during the war in Kosovo. "I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president," Clark added.
Democratic guru Rand Beers made similar remarks Monday, arguing McCain's time as prisoner of war in Vietnam "limited" his foreign policy view.
Sadly, Sen. McCain was not available during those times, and I say that with all due respect to him," Rand Beers said Monday during a talk at the liberal think-tank the Center for American Progress. "He was in isolation essentially for many of those years and did not experience the turmoil here or the challenges that were involved for those of us who served in Vietnam during the Vietnam war."
"So I think," he continued, "to some extent his national security experience in that regard is sadly limited and I think it is reflected in some of the ways that he thinks about how us forces might be committed to conflicts around the world."
Camp Distances From Wes Clark Comments
Obama spokesman Bill Burton told ABC News' Rick Klein, "As he's said many times before, Senator Obama honors and respects Senator McCain's service, and of course he rejects yesterday's statement by General Clark."
The Obama campaign Monday further distanced themselves from Clark's comments, saying the retired general was not booked through the campaign for his CBS appearance.
However, he did contact the campaign for talking points. Bashing McCain's military service, Obama aides say, was not one of those talking points.
'It's a Game'
Afterwards, many audience members who had come to hear Obama speak reacted positively about his message.
"The undercurrent politically among Independents, Democrats and Republicans [is that] basically he's not a patriotic person, he didn't serve in the military, he doesn't have the credentials of patriotic stances," said Carol Coe of Kansas City, Mo. "I think he is going to level the playing field and have a healthy campaign from the start because he's laying down the ground rules right now."
Khadijah Hardaway of Kansas City said she disagrees with the way the patriotism of Obama's wife, Michelle Obama, was attacked for comments during the primary campaign that it was the first time she was "really proud" of the country, remarks she has since clarified.
"I've heard the attack on his wife and I think it's a game, you know people want to play a game," Hardaway said. "He [Obama] wants to eliminate that whole aspect of politicians, one against the other and really get to the nut of what his country needs."
"We should respect our military but we can have different opinions with the present administration and still be patriotic," agreed Delores Straub of Independence.
Afterwards, Obama made an impromptu stop in Independence to tour the home of former President Harry Truman. While leaving the house, Obama took a question from reporters about why he felt the need to deliver a speech on patriotism.
"I think that not only Truman but Mark Twain I think embodies a lot of the wisdom of the Midwest and of the heartland of the country," Obama said, "So when you think about 4th of July, for me at least, I think about the spirit that is in this place. It's the spirit that my grandparents embodied, and my mother passed on to me and you know it's a place where I think there's not a lot a pretense or fuss or trying to use patriotism in ways that divide us so I thought it was an appropriate town."
Obama ignored a question on Wes Clark's comments.
A la Iowa style campaigning, Obama walked to the historic home from his speech site, which was about a half mile away, strolling through the streets with his shirt sleeves rolled up, shaking people's hands, and stopping on people's front porches to talk.
Obama Attempts to Dispel Rumors
Obama, a relatively new face for many Americans, has sought to counter questions about his patriotism and his background.
Internet rumors have plagued him as he battles for the White House with the presumptive Republican nominee -- a Vietnam veteran and prisoner of war with a 21-year career as a U.S. senator.
The Obama campaign has recently aired an autobiographical television ad picturing Obama with his white mother and white grandparents as he talks about growing up in the Kansas heartland, developing a "deep and abiding faith in the country I love."
The Obama campaign has also fought against Internet rumors that Obama a Muslim, setting up a Web site called "Fight the Smears." A Pew poll found recently that one in 10 Americans believes Obama is a Muslim, despite his Christian beliefs.
The speech in Missouri kicks off a week of themed speeches on "enduring American values." Obama addresses "faith" on Tuesday and "national service" on Thursday and Friday.
Obama makes his second trip to Ohio Tuesday since securing his party's presidential nomination. His campaign says he will visit a church program that provides food, clothing and emergency assistance to needy families in Zanesville, Ohio.
Both presidential candidates are fighting hard for the swing state. McCain held fundraisers and town hall meetings late last week in Ohio.
On July Fourth, Obama will be in Butte, Mont., with his family for the holiday. The Obama family will also celebrate the birthday of its oldest daughter, Malia.
ABC News' John Berman contributed to this report.