WASHINGTON - Every American should have health-care coverage within six years, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama said yesterday as he set an ambitious goal soon after jumping into the 2008 presidential race.

"I am absolutely determined that by the end of the first term of the next president, we should have universal health care in this country," Obama told a conference of Families USA, a health-care advocacy group.

The Illinois senator did not provide specifics on his plan for coverage.

Obama was previewing what is shaping up to be a theme of the 2008 Democratic primary. His chief rivals, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards, also are strong proponents of universal health care and have promised to offer their plans.

Obama said that while plans were offered in every campaign season with "much fanfare and promise," they collapse under the weight of Washington politics, leaving citizens to struggle with the skyrocketing costs.

He said it was wrong that 46 million people in this country were uninsured when the country spent more than any one else on health care. He said Americans pay $15 billion in taxes to help care for the uninsured.

"We can't afford another disappointing charade in 2008, 2009 and 2010," Obama said. "It's not only tiresome, it's wrong."

Obama's call was an echo of a speech he made in April when he said Democrats "need to cling to the core values that make us Democrats: the belief in universal health care, the belief in universal education, and then we should be agnostic in terms of how to achieve those values."

His argument yesterday not only will be considered through the prism of the presidential campaign but weighed against rival Clinton's ill-fated plan to overhaul the health-insurance system when she was first lady.

Even after leading that attempt in 1993, Clinton remains in favor of universal health care and has made it a central theme of her presidential bid.