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Clinton Tests Out Populist Approach

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton makes a campaign stop at the Rhode Island College recreation center in Providence. The Democratic presidential hopeful is reaching out to working-class voters as the March 4 primary contests near.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton makes a campaign stop at the Rhode Island College recreation center in Providence. The Democratic presidential hopeful is reaching out to working-class voters as the March 4 primary contests near. (By Carolyn Kaster -- Associated Press)

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By Perry Bacon Jr. and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 25, 2008

PROVIDENCE, R.I., Feb. 24 -- Blasting "companies shamelessly turning their backs on Americans" by shipping jobs overseas and railing that "it is wrong that somebody who makes $50 million on Wall Street pays a lower tax rate than somebody who makes $50,000 a year," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton increasingly sounds like one of her old Democratic rivals, former senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

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Eager to recapture the white, working-class voters who favored her in some of the early primaries but who have since shifted to Sen. Barack Obama, Clinton traded her usual wonky style this weekend for a fiery, populist tone in speeches in Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island.

Instead of giving precise policy details, she repeatedly pointed her finger skyward, declared that Americans "got shafted under President Bush" and cast herself as a fighter, as Edwards often described himself, promising to help most Americans, not just the "wealthy and the connected."

In an appearance here Sunday afternoon, she mocked Obama's hopeful rhetoric, declaring that it is not the answer to fighting entrenched interests.

"I could stand up here and say, 'Let's just get everybody together, let's get unified, the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect,' " she said, as people cheered and laughed. "You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear."

But her rhetoric did not go unanswered. In trying to reach the same working-class voters, Obama continued to emphasize over the weekend that Clinton was part of the White House that pushed the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress and highlighted remarks Clinton made in support of the deal.

On Saturday, Clinton charged Obama with sending out a mailer that unfairly quoted her as saying that NAFTA had been a "boon" for America, a word that Obama acknowledged Clinton had not used. But the senator from Illinois kept up his attack on Sunday while speaking to dozens of workers at a gypsum plant in Lorain, Ohio.

"Yesterday, Senator Clinton also said I'm wrong to point out that she once supported NAFTA. But the fact is, she was saying great things about NAFTA until she started running for president. A couple years after it passed, she said NAFTA was a 'free and fair trade agreement' and that it was 'proving its worth.' And in 2004, she said, 'I think, on balance, NAFTA has been good for New York state and America.' "

The senator from New York has tried to distance herself from NAFTA, which is unpopular among workers in manufacturing who believe the deal has contributed to the movement of jobs overseas. In Ohio on Saturday, Clinton argued that while NAFTA "passed" during husband Bill Clinton's administration in 1993, President George H.W. Bush actually "negotiated" the deal. Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D), a Clinton backer, told Bloomberg News this weekend that Bill Clinton told him Hillary Clinton had opposed NAFTA in 1993.

In Lorain, Obama blamed NAFTA for the loss of 1 million jobs since 1994, including 50,000 in the Buckeye State, and ridiculed Clinton's efforts to distance herself from the trade deal. "It was her own husband who got NAFTA passed," Obama said. "In her own book, Senator Clinton called NAFTA one of 'Bill's successes' and 'legislative victories.' "

Clinton is trying to assume the populist mantle of Edwards -- whom she described in December as "screaming," in his critiques of special interests -- with March 4 looming as the decisive day for her candidacy. Four states will vote that day, but Bill Clinton, among others, has said that his wife must win the two largest -- Ohio and Texas -- to continue her campaign.

Her campaign aides say wooing both working-class voters and middle-income people concerned about the economy is crucial, particularly in Ohio.


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