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.
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.
"These are the voters who are up for grabs," said Doug Hattaway, a Clinton adviser.
During the campaign, Clinton has often criticized trade agreements and the movement of jobs overseas. Over the weekend, she adopted a far more pointed tone and spent a lot of time emphasizing her populist message, reducing mentions of issues such as balancing the budget that have been standard in her speeches. She spent less time on the intricacies of her health-care plan and her proposal to withdraw troops from Iraq, heeding advice from aides who have urged her to speak in broader terms.
Clinton is seeking to get past the loss of 11 straight contests to Obama and to shore up the support of groups that have been key to her candidacy. In the states where she has performed strongly, Clinton has won among households with less than $50,000 in income, among people without college degrees and among families with at least one member in a labor union. But in last week's primary in Wisconsin, she lost all three groups.
White, working-class men, in particular, are a key voting bloc in a race where blacks have overwhelmingly supported Obama and white women have backed Clinton. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last week showed Clinton leading overall in Ohio, where she led among white men, while the candidates were tied in Texas, where Obama had an advantage among white men.
James Rivard, a Cleveland technician who was polled and whose family makes less than $50,000, said he is leaning toward Obama but wants to hear more about the economy. "My income has been stagnant for like 12 years now, but my expenses have continued to go up, while all of this capital is leaving the country every year," he said.
Edwards's campaigns in 2004 and 2008 targeted working-class voters, and both Obama and Clinton have adopted some of his language about the plight of low-income voters as they seek to win over the group. In the weeks since Edwards dropped out of the race, Clinton and Obama have enthusiastically courted his endorsement and noted their support for reducing poverty, one of the key planks of his candidacy.
At a debate Thursday night in Austin, Clinton closed with a statement similar to one Edwards often used.
"Whatever happens, we're going to be fine. . . . I just hope that we'll be able to say the same thing about the American people, and that's what this election should be about," she said.
At a Dec. 13 debate, Edwards said: "All of us are going to be just fine, no matter what happens in this election. But what's at stake is whether America is going to be fine."