Monday, August 18, 2008

RENO, Nev. | Sen. Barack Obama is taking his campaign to the rural backroads that helped him win early primaries but later slipped from his grasp.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s small town-hall meetings are aimed at showing voters that he understands their economic plight.

“This election is about whether or not we are going to sustain and maintain the American dream for the next generation,” Mr. Obama told voters here during an early-morning town hall before later jetting to San Francisco for a high-dollar fundraiser.

The Illinois senator bashed Sen. John McCain‘s economic plan, linking the presumptive Republican nominee repeatedly to President Bush and saying they have “the same team and … the same strategy.”

“The wealthiest 1 percent have never had it so good, but ordinary families, middle-class families, saw their incomes go down by $1,000” under the Bush administration, he said. An Obama administration would push “an economy that’s working not just for some, but for all,” he said, drawing cheers.

Lower-income white voters showed up for him in rural Nevada during the January caucus, allowing him to win more delegates than his Democratic rival. But later in the grueling primary season, those voters flocked to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

One explanation is that Mr. Obama was caught on tape in the spring telling San Francisco donors that some voters are “bitter” about the bad economy and then “cling” to religion and guns. Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain said the comment made the Democrat seem elitist.

But this week, Mr. Obama returns to spots where the economy has hit people hard - including Southside Virginia - and he stresses, “your story was my story because I wasn’t born into fame or fortune.” He also notes that he was raised by a single mother and has been successful, thanks to help from his hardworking grandparents and a good education.

But he has to do more than just talk, warned Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, who has helped Democrats with rural strategy.

“People out here are not Internet people, and they work long days doing blue-collar jobs,” said Mr. Saunders, who worked for John Edwards and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. “He needs to get out there and tell them the American worker deserves a shot because they don’t watch cable news.”

Mr. Obama does talk about these issues regularly, saying Sunday here that “the American people value work,” and using examples of struggling people who tell him they want change. But sometimes that message does not break through.

The candidate suggested maybe the message isn’t resonating because Republicans say he will raise taxes and create “economic disaster.”

“I’ve got news for John McCain. My plan’s not going to bring about economic disaster; we already have economic disaster from John McCain’s president, George W. Bush,” he said here.

The McCain campaign fired back in a statement citing a Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial that described the Obama economic plan in those terms and said the plan would “squeeze hardworking Americans.”

Mr. Obama on Wednesday will campaign in Martinsville, Va., with Mr. Warner, a Senate candidate who will keynote the Democratic National Convention. It is the second time since June that the two have appeared together on the trail.

“He’ll find a friendly crowd in Martinsville, but the further he moves west, he’ll have some trouble,” Mr. Saunders said. “He is not going to win rural Virginia, you can forget it.” He added that Mr. Obama was “hammered” in Buchanan County, pulling in just 9 percent of the vote there, despite his massive win of the state Democratic primary overall.

Mr. Warner disagreed, saying that neither party has paid much attention to rural America in decades but that Mr. Obama can win by showing voters “these communities will not be forgotten.”

“He’s got to stay at it and break through and show that this guy is the real deal,” he told The Washington Times yesterday. “You have to come. Sometimes people in a small town are kind of suspect, but if you can continue to come, they will give you a chance.”

He said he would advise Mr. Obama to visit places like Martinsville, suffering from double-digit unemployment, on a regular basis through the Nov. 4 election. The message of genuine concern for helping rural people will resonate in Virginia, Ohio, Missouri or Iowa, he said.

Mr. Saunders believes Mr. Warner will help the presidential hopeful.

“The only person better would be Jesus,” he said, adding that even though Mr. Warner is a “Connecticut Yankee,” he came to rural Virginia and showed voters that he appreciated their culture, enjoying NASCAR by sponsoring a car and even going hunting.

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