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Photos: Kal Penn, in Denver for Obama, talks marijuana, youth, swing states

Actor Kal Penn, who is campaigning for Barack Obama nearly full-time, stopped in Colorado yesterday to promote the president on college campuses. While his well-known character in Harold & Kumar may know quite a bit about marijuana, Penn, at a stop at the Auraria campus yesterday afternoon, didn't have much to say about how marijuana legislation could affect the presidential election in the key swing state of Colorado.

While questions of legalizing marijuana and the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol act are in many ways specific to Colorado, national media outlets have commented on the possible impact of marijuana legislation on the presidential race. And given that the Obama administration has been tougher on marijuana than some anticipated, reporters have raised questions about whether Colorado voters drawn to the polls to vote on marijuana may ultimately cast their ballot for Gary Johnson a Libertarian candidate many perceive as being more sympathetic to their cause.

Actor Kal Penn at the Auraria campus for Obama yesterday .
Actor Kal Penn at the Auraria campus for Obama yesterday .
Sam Levin

When asked about marijuana legislation by a local reporter in May, Mitt Romney wasn't too pleased by the question.

Turns out Kal Penn isn't a huge fan of such questions, either -- but given his marijuana-related movies, he gets it a lot.

"I don't know a whole lot about it. I know I get that question because of some of the movies I've done, but I am sort of naive when it comes to policy on that," he tells Westword after his speech when asked about Colorado supporters of Johnson. "It's also a Colorado-specific issue that I'm not up to speed on, since I live elsewhere and bounce between states."

He adds, "I don't know those folks. I do know the president very well and I have read up enough about Governor Romney to know that that's not the direction I think we should take things. I think the best thing we can do -- I'm not a fan of the mudslinging.... There's no need to go negative with the president's successes on all these youth issues, so I think the greatest thing we can do is talk about how, despite congressional opposition, the president got all this stuff done. I encourage them to read up about all the other candidates and make an informed decision about viable candidates and who can win and why."

Penn does know the president very well and has some legitimate credibility as an Obama surrogate: He is currently a national campaign co-chair for the president's reelection, and during 2008, he campaigned in 26 states for Obama and served on the president's National Arts Policy Committee (leaving the show House for a gig at the White House).

But he still is a part of what seems to be a tried-and-true strategy of the Obama campaign in Colorado -- bringing out celebrities to the state to target specific demographics. John Cho, the other half of Harold & Kumar, was here last month and is reuniting with Penn today on more college visits. These celebrity appearances for Obama underscore the importance of Colorado in the race, though as Grey's Anatomy star Jesse Williams told us earlier this summer, it could also have something to do with the fact that Colorado is a key swing state that also happens to be fairly accessible to Hollywood, compared to, say, Ohio or Florida.

Penn, who was in Denver earlier this year, says he has already sixteen states, and even tried to rattle them all off when speaking to us.

"Let's see if I can name them? ... Do we have time?" he says, gesturing to Obama's Colorado press secretary, before continuing on with lightening speed, "New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, California, uhh...Illinois...Virginia, Maryland...Wisconsin is in two weeks...Iowa!"

Penn, who is shooting a pilot for a week and a half at the end of September, says he's otherwise pretty much devoted the rest of his time to Obama's re-election.

"So a lot of the swing states, but also a lot of border states and states...that are hard blue or hard red," he says of his campaigning. "Realistically, the president...wants surrogates in all fifty states. We have offices in all fifty states. This is not a talking point. We legitimately want to increase voter turnout everywhere."

Kal Penn giving his speech.
Kal Penn giving his speech.
Sam Levin

Anything in particular that he really likes about Colorado?

"People are just really nice, man," he says. "I grew up on either coast, and I'm not trying to slam any places I've ever lived, but there is a certain warmth here that I enjoy."

Continue reading for more of Penn's commentary from the Denver campaign event.

In his Q&A with more than a hundred students on campus, Penn was also asked about third-party candidates. In response to one question about why he is supporting the Democratic Party and not an independent party, Penn said that he is himself an independent and remembers in 2008 in Iowa when he talked to folks who were deciding between supporting Ron Paul and Obama.

Kal Penn preparing to register voters.
Kal Penn preparing to register voters.
Sam Levin

Many ended up supporting Obama, he said, because they realized "he was a viable candidate at that point."

Penn continued, "The president talks about this a lot now that we have a really great opportunity to judge him now not based on the ideal, but based on the practical, based on his record, based on...who is more likely to actually get things done and continue progress...I am an independent...but I really strongly believe in all the things the president has been fighting for."

In his speech, Penn -- who said "I know half of you are wondering why that dude from Harold & Kumar is here" -- focused on what four more years of Obama means for students and youth, applauding the president's Pell Grant scholarships and college tax credit.

Referencing support for students, access to health care, the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and other Obama achievements, Penn told the crowd of students, "I didn't think that four years later we'd have to campaign to preserve all the progress we've made...but we do."

In the interview, he says he understands politically just how important Colorado is in the race.

"It's a battleground state. The president wants to make sure he wins it. He thinks he can with the support of young people in particular, but it's also on a broader scale...a microcosm of the rest of the country," he says, referencing debates on clean energy, wind and solar and the president's support of tax credits that he says will save thousands of jobs. "One of the big reasons we're in Colorado is to get young people registered to vote, make sure they're getting involved in the president's campaign, know what the stakes are in the election, and know that he considers them very important."

Crowd outside Kal Penn event.
Crowd outside Kal Penn event.
Sam Levin

More from our Politics archive: "Videos: Mitt Romney's Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin dodge overshadows CBS4 interview"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.


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