Obama and Clinton court working families

April 30, 2008 5:51:16 PM PDT
Barack Obama teamed up with wife Michelle on Wednesday to court working families with a little kitchen table conversation about tax cuts. Rival Hillary Rodham Clinton hitched a ride in a pickup truck to a gas pump to illustrate the pain inflicted on ordinary families by skyrocketing prices. Clinton was underscoring her call for a summer-long hiatus on collecting the federal gas tax by pulling into a South Bend gas station with sheet metal worker Jason Wilfing, 33, who pumped regular unleaded.

"Sixty-three dollars for just about half a tank," exclaimed Clinton.

Wilfing told Clinton that the high price of gas means his family won't be able to take an annual summer trip to Lake Michigan.

The Obamas headed to suburban Beech Grove, where they had lunch and chatted with Mike and Cheryl Fischer, hearing their stories of struggle. He's a machinist at a local Amtrak facility where 77 jobs are threatened this summer.

"They say it's not personal," Fischer said. "Yes, it is very personal."

Their tactics were different, but the goal for both Democratic presidential candidates was to connect with blue-collar workers who will play a key role in primaries Tuesday in Indiana and North Carolina. In addition to a frenetic campaign schedule, Obama is running about $2.8 million in ads in Indiana and about $2.5 million in North Carolina, oupacing Clinton's spending by about 2-to-1 in each state.

Clinton began airing new ads in the states this week. One that is running in both states points out that she has called for a freeze in foreclosures and a summer-long suspension of the gasoline tax and that Obama has opposed both steps. She also is airing an ad in North Carolina featuring noted poet Maya Angelou and one in Indiana that invokes the memory of her parents and growing up in Illinois.

Obama on Wednesday responded to Clinton's housing and gasoline price ad with a 60-second spot airing in both states. In the ad, Obama likens the benefits of a gas tax suspension to "half a tank of gas." Another ad in North Carolina focuses on education and urges parents to turn off the television set and read to their children.

Unions are also weighing in. A Clinton-backed outside group financed largely by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is running an ad questioning Obama's economic policies. A political action committee of the Service Employees International Union is running a pro-Obama ad.

On Wednesday, Obama said he and his wife understand the pressures facing working families. "Michelle and I grew up in a pretty modest situation," he said.

"We are still so close to the lives most Americans are living," said Michelle Obama, who described herself as "a working mom."

"Work isn't a choice. It never felt like a choice to me," she said. "Being a good mom, being a good wife, keeping your marriage together, these are the stresses people feel."

The Obamas sat around the kitchen table with the Fischers, with Michelle serving ice tea and diet soda. The Fischers are worried they'll be forced to move away from their three grown children if he loses his job. Fischer is 53 and his wife, a hospital technician, is 52.

"I know it means so much to have your folks stay put," Michelle Obama said. "We live 10 minutes from my mom, who just retired, and there's nothing like having grandma right there."

It was the first time the Obamas have campaigned together since appearances before Pennsylvania's April 22 primary.

Clinton held her own kitchen table conversation with a family in Hobart, Ind., a blue-collar town outside Gary, on Tuesday evening.

The former first lady sat at the table with Johnnie and Peggy Parker and their children and grandchildren, tea and cookies in front of her untouched. Reporters and cameras jammed in to record the meeting, overtaking the tiny house.

Clinton listened and nodded as Johnnie Parker, a sheet metal worker, described being out of work for nine months and paying a steep price for health insurance to care for his wife, who has multiple sclerosis. He said he'd recently found another job and now has good health coverage through his union.

Clinton talked to the Parker children about school, asking which subjects they enjoyed studying. She also mentioned how she played softball in high school. "I played center field and pitched a little," she said.

Clinton argues that Obama has been insensitive to the needs of working families, while Obama says that suspending the gas tax amounts to a mere pittance.

"It's not a real solution. It's a gimmick. I don't want to provide gimmicks," Obama said.

Instead, Obama said he would push for a middle-class tax cut that could save working families an average of $1,000 a year.

On a deeper level, the Obamas were seeking links to working families to ease concerns raised by comments by their former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which have offended some voters, and by some critics' suggestions that they are elitist and out of touch with workers.

Obama pointed to "the fact that both of us come from modest backgrounds, that both of us saw our parents struggle."

"We weren't born into wealth or fame or fortune, and Michelle didn't marry into wealth," he said.

There was an emotional moment at the Fischer home when Michelle Obama approached their 19-year-old daughter, Abby Maddox, noting that she is pregnant and her husband is about to be deployed to Iraq. The daughter teared up, and the two embraced.

While most polls have shown Obama favored in North Carolina, the race in Indiana is considered far too close to call.

Obama picked up the backing of three superdelegates during the day to Clinton's two, continuing to expand his overall delegate lead.

After the lunch, Obama headed to an Indianapolis park for a town hall meeting before about 30 people. He was asked how he's holding up in light of the dispute with Wright, whom he denounced Tuesday.

"The situation with Reverend Wright is difficult, I won't lie to you," said Obama. "We want to make sure this doesn't become a permanent distraction."